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The common law is not static; its life and heart is its dynamism—its ability to keep pace with the world while constantly searching for just and fair solutions to pressing societal problems. The common law is, therefore, subject to judicial modification in light of modern circumstances or increased knowledge.
Plaintiff James Kyle Coleman volunteered to assist in coaching a team of young soccer players in a program of defendant Soccer Association of Columbia ("SAC"). While at field not owned by SAC, Coleman kicked a soccer ball into a soccer goal. As he passed under the goal's metal top rail, or crossbar, to retrieve the ball, he jumped up and grabbed the crossbar. The soccer goal was not anchored to the ground, and, as he held on to the upper crossbar, Coleman fell backwards, drawing the weight of the crossbar onto his face. He suffered multiple severe facial fractures that required surgery and the placing of three titanium plates in his face. Coleman filed a lawsuit against SAC in Maryland state court alleging that he was injured due to SAC's negligence. SAC asserted the defense of contributory negligence. At trial, the court refused to give Coleman's proffered jury instruction on comparative negligence and instead instructed the jury on contributory negligence. The jury concluded that SAC was negligent and its negligence caused Coleman's injuries. The jury also found that Coleman was negligent, and that his negligence contributed to his own injuries. Because of the contributory negligence finding, Coleman was barred from any recovery. The trial court denied Coleman's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and subsequently entered judgment in favor of SAC. Both parties appealed, and then Coleman filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which was granted.
Did the principle of contributory negligence bar Coleman from recovering damages in his negligence action against SAC?
The Court of Appeals of Maryland affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court held that, although it had the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence, it declined to abrogate Maryland's long-established common law principle of contributory negligence. The General Assembly's repeated failure to pass legislation abrogating the defense of contributory negligence was very strong evidence that the legislative policy in Maryland was to retain the principle of contributory negligence, the court concluded. For the court to change the common law and abrogate the contributory negligence defense in negligence actions, in the face of the General Assembly's repeated refusal to do so, would be totally inconsistent with the court's long-standing jurisprudence.