Law Updates

Maryland Intermediate Appellate Court Finds that a Trial Court Appropriately Applied Statutory Cap on Non-Economic Damages Separately in to Two Causes of Action, Rather than in the Aggregate

Goss v. Estate of Jennings,Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, No. 1931 (August 31, 2012) | View pdf

(September 8, 2012) Wayne C. Heavener, Law Clerk.

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In Goss v. Estate of Jennings, Judge Robert A. Zarnoch of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed a decision by the Circuit Court of Prince George’s County, upholding a jury’s verdict as to the negligence of Wayne H. Goss, and appropriately applied the statutory cap on non-economic damages awarded in plaintiffs’ survival and wrongful death actions separately, rather than in the aggregate. In reaching its decision, the Court held that the decedent was neither contributorily negligent as a matter of law, nor did his actions serve as a superseding cause relieving Goss from any liability. The Court also upheld the circuit court’s evidentiary rulings at trial, and ultimately affirmed its application of the statutory cap on non-economic damages.

Rodney Jennings was an inmate in the custody of the Maryland Division of Corrections. While working on litter cleanup duty, Jennings was struck and killed by a dump truck. Jennings was in a gore — a narrow, triangular area of land where an exit lane veers away from the travel portion of the lane — when the dump truck attempted to depart on the nearby exit lane. The dump truck and a nearby tractor-trailer truck honked their horns to warn the inmates. Apparently believing that the truck would hit the gore, Jennings attempted to run across the exit lane. In so doing, Jennings ran into the dump truck, and subsequently died.

The dump truck was owned by Goss Trucking, LLC, and was being operated by Wayne Goss. Jennings’ estate, the estate of his mother, and three beneficiaries (collectively, Plaintiffs) filed a wrongful death and survival action in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. Plaintiffs later joined the Division of Corrections and the State Highway Administration (collectively, State) in their complaint. Goss, in turn, filed a third party complaint against the State, which filed a cross-claim against Goss, each seeking contribution and indemnification.

At trial, Goss and the State moved for judgment at the end of the Plaintiffs’ case-in-chief, and again at the close of all the evidence. The circuit court denied the motions. The jury returned a verdict against Goss and the State for $2,025,00.00, which included the damages awarded in the survival action ($350,000) and the wrongful death action ($1,675,000). All defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and Goss also moved for a new trial and remittitur. The court granted the State’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, denied Goss’ motions, and reduced the award to $1.37 million. Goss appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.

Goss argued on appeal that Jennings was contributory negligent as a matter of law because he chose to run from the gore, and into the truck. Goss argued that Jennings’ entry into the exit ramp was a superseding cause in the accident, relieving Goss from liability for negligence. The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments. The Court found that Jennings’ decision to run into the exit ramp was not so obviously negligent that the jury would be unjustified in finding him free from fault. Therefore, Jennings was not contributorily negligent as a matter of law simply because he entered the exit ramp. The Court similarly found that the jury’s verdict, finding that Jennings’ death was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of Goss’ negligence, was sufficiently supported by the evidence at trial.

Goss also argued that the trial court committed evidentiary errors in admitting: evidence as to a gross weight violation, a horn demonstration at trial, and inadmissible hearsay testimony in the form of brake measurements. Regarding the admission of the weight violation, the Court found held that the admission was harmless error at best, and therefore the judge did not abuse his discretion in permitting the evidence to be admitted at trial. Likewise, the Court found that the circuit court permissibly admitted the horn demonstration at trial, as it served to assist the jury in understanding the difference in decibel levels between an average car horn and the air horn on the dump truck. The Court also held that the post-accident brake measurements, even if inadmissible hearsay testimony, was harmless error.

Goss argued that the trial court misapplied the statutory caps on non-economic damages by applying separate caps as to Plaintiffs’ survival and wrongful death action. Rather, Goss argued that the two causes of action should be subject to one cap, and applied in the aggregate. The Court rejected Goss’ argument, and held that the damages cap applied separately to damage awards where there were two separate causes of action. The Court reasoned that the legislature distinguished between two different causes of action in the application of the damages cap, and at no time erased that distinction. Therefore, the trial court appropriately reduced the award to $1.37 million dollars because the award consisted of the personal injury survival award, which did not exceed the cap on its own, and the wrongful death award as properly reduced to 150% of the applicable cap.

Both Goss and Plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that the State mishandled the work zone, failed to properly protect the inmates, and failed to train the inmates on how to safely cross the road. The Court rejected the arguments of Goss and the Plaintiffs, emphasizing that the sole issue before them was whether the jury’s verdict was substantiated by the jury’s verdict. The Court observed that Jennings was fatally injured only after he finished crossing the ramp, entered the gore, and then ran back across the exit ramp. There was no evidence that the State inappropriately directed the inmates to cross the ramp or was negligent in their training. Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of judgment notwithstanding the verdict.