The Maryland Court of Appeals declined yesterday to change state law that says if an injured person contributed in any way, no matter how slight, to the cause of the accident that injured him, a jury cannot award him any money damages.
The ruling came in the case of a 19-year-old youth who in 1978 was permanently paralyzed from the neck down in an accident in a gym class at Gaithersburg Junior High School.
Maryland is one of only 11 states, including Virginia, plus the District of Columbia, that have retained the so-called contributory negligence doctrine in the courts.
The appeals court, in a 6-to-1 ruling, said that any decision to adopt a new law for awarding damages in accident cases involves "fundamental and basic public policy" issues that are best left to the state legislature rather than judges. No bills to change the law have been introduced in this year's General Assembly, according to legislative aides.
Attorneys for the youth, Michael Harrison, who sued the Montgomery County Board of Education unsuccessfully for money damages in a lower court, had urged the appeals court to change the law to a system of "comparative negligence" in which awards are based on the injured person's degree of fault.
"It's hard to think what to say right now. . . . There's nothing you can do about it," Harrison said yesterday by telephone from a nursing home in upstate Illinois where his 24-hour-a-day care costs $20,000 a year.
Jacob A. Stein, one of his attorneys, said that because the case involves issues of purely local law it is unlikely he will seek review of the case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the trial in the Montgomery County Circuit Court, Harrison and his mother argued that he was not properly supervised and had not been trained to safely perform the gymnastics stunt--a front flip--that resulted in the neck injury that left him a quadriplegic.
The county school board denied negligence, but also argued that even if there was negligence, Harrison had violated gym class safety rules and thus contributed to his injury. Under Maryland law, a finding by the jury of any contributory negligence by Harrison prohibited any award of money damages. After 10 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the school board.
Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, writing for the majority of the appeals court, noted that courts customarily defer to state lawmakers when a change is sought in a well-established legal principle, such as the contributory negligence doctrine. Murphy also noted that between 1966 and 1982 the General Assembly rejected 21 bills that would have abolished contributory negligence in favor of a comparative fault system.
Murphy said the court was unable to say that the complexities of modern life have made the contributory doctrine a "vestige of the past."
In the lone dissenting opinion, Judge Rita C. Davidson noted that 39 states have abandoned the contributory negligence doctrine, and in eight of those states the change was made by the judiciary.