The Maryland horse industry, indeed, the Maryland business community as a whole, works hard to maintain Maryland’s standards of liability, which are supportive of landowner and business owners in the face of frivolous liability lawsuits.
(For an excellent primer on Maryland’s liability and negligence standards, and how they affect the horse industry, please click here to visit The Equiery archives; click here to see a position analysis by the Maryland Horse Council.)
Maryland’s contributory negligence standards are not codified in law, and thus could be overturned by a court decision. So the Maryland Horse Council, along with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, are supporting two bills that would codify Maryland’s current contributory negligence liability standard, ensuring that the contributing fault of an injured party can be asserted as a defense in a lawsuit. The law would only go into effect in the event that a pending court decision strikes down the current standard (which is generally favorable to horse owners and horse business operators). The House version of the bill, HB 1156, was heard on March 6 but no action has yet been taken. The Senate version, SB 819, will be heard on March 19 .
Meanwhile, MHC is also active on HB 1182, which would freeze current law and create a commission, largely composed of legislators, to study how fault should be allocated between plaintiffs and defendants in negligence cases.
MHC submitted this testimony:
A reasoned, workable system of fault allocation that takes into account the realities of small business operations is critical to the survival of these businesses. Generations of Maryland small business owners have relied on the Contributory Negligence standard to provide them with predictability and the assurance that they can conduct their operations without fear of being targeted by those who feel no responsibility for their own recklessness or disregard for safety rules, and see business and service providers as “deep pocket” insurers of their safety and well-being. Among other things, the existence of this standard has enabled these small businesses to develop viable business plans, including essential commercial liability insurance coverage. Any change to the current system should not be undertaken without thorough consideration of all the possible impacts on all those affected.
Equine operators in Maryland already have some difficulty obtaining liability insurance at affordable rates, but it is generally acknowledged that it is largely the continued existence of the Contributory Negligence standard in Maryland that makes insurance accessible at all. A change in the fault allocation standard could cause the incidence of lawsuits having little or no merit to skyrocket. And according to our members, the mere filing of a lawsuit, regardless of merit, can result in the denial of insurance coverage, or renewal offers at prohibitively high rates. Many equine operators would not be able to continue in business without adequate liability insurance coverage.
In addition, the continued applicability of the Contributory Negligence standard in Maryland has obviated the need for an Equine Limited Liability Law, which the legislatures of 44 states, most of whom apply other fault allocation systems, have found necessary to ensure the continued survival of equine operations in their jurisdictions in the face of the proliferation of meritless claims.
Given the important and widespread public policy impacts of the fault allocation system on the viability and day to day operations of members of our industry and others, MHC believes that the appropriate standard should be decided by the legislature, not the courts. HB 1182 would establish a mechanism to allow a reasoned study of the issue.
The Equiery applauds MHC’s work on this important issue, and urges all readers to likewise contact their elected officials and urge support of these bills. Click here to find out who your elected officials are and how to contract them.