Giving Up Your Rights Without Even Knowing It
Posted on behalf of Goldberg Finnegan, LLC on Feb 20, 2012 in Environmental Law
Last Thursday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals decided Murray v. TransCare, a case that has a lot to do with immunities. Let's talk about the back-story before we get to the substance of the case.
Murray was litigated on the plaintiffs' side by Stephen Snyder's law firm. This ruling came on the same day as the Court of Special Appeals' decision in Ford v. Exxon, the groundwater contamination case also brought by Mr. Snyder. In Exxon, the trial court, and the jury, gave Snyder and his clients just about everything he could have hoped for. In a 321-page opinion, however, the Court of Special Appeals took most of it away. One can't help but wonder if the Transcare decision was meant to soften the blow of the Exxon ruling. It is comfort, but small comfort. Of course, there will be an inevitable appeal to the Court of Appeals, so it's not over yet.
Basically, Murray was a Maryland medical malpractice case. The plaintiff was sent from a hospital in Talbot County to the University of Maryland Medical System by helicopter. The defendant's paramedic was negligent in not being able to timely locate important life-saving equipment in the helicopter. The result is that the plaintiff suffered a period of time without oxygen, which led to permanent brain damage.
The plaintiff lost at the trial court on three issues. First, the case was transferred from Baltimore City to Talbot County. The more interesting issue, however, was the trial court's grant of summary judgment based on two immunities. The trial judge clearly wasn't sure what to do-first he denied the motion, but then the defendants asked him to reconsider, and he granted their motions. He knew that the case would be sent up to the Court of Special Appeals, and his decision seems to indicate that he hoped it would so that the issue would be clarified for future litigants.
Forum Non Conveniens
The Murray case was initially filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court. However, defendants requested that the judge transfer the case to Talbot County Circuit Court under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, which is legal-speak for "even though the case can be filed in one place, it is more convenient and just for everyone if the case is heard in another place." Lawyers often try to get the case into the best court possible, and these lawyers clearly believed that they had a better chance of recovery (or, a better chance of a higher recovery) with Baltimore City judges and jurors, as compared to those of Talbot County. Snyder did nothing wrong in filing the case in Baltimore City-the motion to transfer was not because it could not be filed there, but because, subjectively, there was a better place to have the case. The Baltimore City Circuit Court agreed, probably rightly so, and transferred the case.
One interesting point is that the plaintiffs' lawyers argued "that the Circuit Court for Talbot County's handling of the case and rulings subsequent to transfer demonstrate that the court was not equipped to manage the case and, as such, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City erred in granting appellees' Motion to Transfer." That may not have been a great argument to put forth, especially because this case is heading back to the Circuit Court for Talbot County (as you'll see after you read the Immunity sections, below).
Immunity No. 1: Good Samaritan Act
Long ago, Maryland decided that certain people and corporations providing emergency medical care shouldn't be sued, even if they were negligent. The Good Samaritan Act, as it has become known, was used by the defense to get out of the case. The question for the Court was whether the Good Samaritan Act applied to private commercial ambulance companies like the defendant. Though the trial court ruled that immunity applied, the Court of Special Appeals disagreed.
In reviewing the language of the law, the Court observed that "the Act does not provide a definition of "person," "individual," or "member." A review of the plain meaning of those terms, however, supports the conclusion a private commercial ambulance company, is not covered by those terms, and, therefore, is not immune by application of the Act."
The Good Samaritan Act also provides immunity to certain corporations. It covers corporations that have fire department personnel, which clearly doesn't apply because TransCare has no firefighters. It also covers volunteer fire departments, ambulances and rescue squads. The Court examined that language closely, and determined that TransCare was not a volunteer ambulance or rescue squad.
Immunity No. 2: Fire and Rescue Companies
Fire & Rescue Companies are also immune from lawsuits in some circumstances, according to Maryland law. The Court had a harder time with this one, particularly because "rescue company" is not clearly defined. The law states that
"...except for any willful or grossly negligent act, a fire company or rescue company, and the personnel of a fire company or rescue company, are immune from civil liability for any act or omission in the course of performing their duties."
The Court decided that the defendants, which essentially provided transportation for the injured plaintiff, along with medical services during that transport, do not qualify as a rescue company. It defined an ambulance as "a vehicle equipped for transporting the injured or sick."
I think this decision is not as clear-cut as the decision on the Good Samaritan Act. I could see a court looking at the language of the statute and going either way, but I'm glad that this was the result. Here's why:
Immunities: Eroding Your Rights Every Year
Every year, corporate interests propose legislation in Maryland to grant them immunities. With immunity, those corporations could not be sued for negligence. Immunity leads to corporate irresponsibility. If Ford was immune from lawsuits when it sold the Pinto (which, as you recall, frequently caught on fire in rear-end collisions), they would never have recalled the product or paid victims.
Immunity laws are unjust for another reason-they are not well-publicized, and Marylanders usually don't realize that they have no rights in some circumstances. If TransCare had immunity in this case, the plaintiffs would have had no way to know, beforehand, that they were giving up their rights. Without that knowledge, there is no way for them to know that, just maybe, they should seek some other way to get to University of Maryland's hospital.
I'm proud to belong to the Maryland Association for Justice (MAJ), where we fight to protect your rights from the corporations who would strip them away, one at a time. In fact from 2009-2010 I was the President of the Maryland Association for Justice. MAJ's legislative team routinely combats these immunity bills, many of which are hidden in hundreds of pages of text, so that your rights to a jury trial are preserved.