The Maryland Court of Appeals today abolished a time-honored "interspousal immunity" rule that for generations has barred husbands and wives in this state from suing each other for personal injuries.
In a 5-to-2 ruling, the state's highest court held that the spousal immunity doctrine is rooted in ancient, male-dominated laws and should be thrown out as "unsound in the circumstances of modern life."
The doctrine is a "vestige of the past," said retired Court of Special Appeals Judge W. Albert Menchine writing for the majority.
"We are persuaded that the reasons asserted for its retention do not survive special scrutiny. They furnish no reasonable basis for denial of recovery for tortious wrongful personal injury."
The ruling stems from a case in which a Baltimore woman, Lauretta Boblitz, attempted to sue her husband, Charles, in 1978, claiming she was injured in an auto accident because of his negligence.
A trial judge in Baltimore, citing the interspousal immunity doctrine, threw the case out.
Lauretta Boblitz then appealed, asking the Court of Appeals to examine the doctrine as it applied to personal injury cases.
In abrogating the doctrine today, the high court noted that 35 states, including Virginia, have already abrogated the doctrine fully or partially. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia retain the doctrine in one form or another.
Two judges of the high court, James F. Couch Jr. and Lawrence F. Rodowsky, dissented from the ruling, contending that any change in the law should be done by the state legislature.
"I must respectfully dissent," wrote Couch, "not because of any personal opinion against allowing such actions brought by one spouse against another, but because I believe this change involves public policy and that policy change is best made by the legislature."
In the majority opinion, Menchine, sitting by special designation in the case, said the doctrine of interspousal immunity originated in traditional common law that provided that "if the wife be injured in her person or her property, she can bring no action for redress without her husband's concurrence . . . neither can she be sued without making the husband a defendant."
Application of the words " 'interspousal immunity' to this ancient rule of law borders on mockery," said Menchine.
A rationale for interspousal immunity was developed over the years, he said, to promote family harmony and prevent "discord, suspicion and distrust among spouses."
But "after discord, suspicion and distrust have entered the home," said Menchine, quoting from a 1951 Maryland court case, "it is idle to say that one of the parties shall not be allowed to sue the other because of fear of bringing in what is already there."
It is time to bring the rule in Maryland into conformance with changing marital roles and the increased rights of women, Menchine said. "Legal scholars quite clearly believe that modern social conditions justify abrogation of the common law rule."
At another point, he said, "We find no subsisting public policy that justifies retention of a judicially created immunity that would bar recovery for injured victims in such cases" as the Boblitz case.
Accordingly, he said, "We abrogate the interspousal immunity rule in this state as to cases sounding in based on negligence and apply the abrogation to this case and prospectively to all such cases originating after the mandate in these proceedings."