May 30, 2011

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Maryland Court of Appeals explains how to analyze possible prejudice from error in civil jury instructions In Barksdale v. Wilkowsky, ___ A.3d ____ (Md. May 23, 2011), the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed a defense verdict in a Baltimore City lead paint poisoning case, due to prejudicial error in the jury instructions. In doing so, the Court reviewed Maryland law as to when an error in jury instructions is reversible error, and when it is harmless error. In the lead paint poisoning trial, the trial court gave an instruction regarding the joint responsibilities of landlords and tenants in keeping the property in good condition. This instruction was essentially the reading of a provision in the Baltimore City Housing Code. The Court found that this instruction was error, because neither the plaintiff's contributory negligence nor negligence of her family members were at issue in the case. The Court of Appeals found that this instruction was prejudicial, because it may have permitted the jury to speculate, or may have precluded a finding of liability where it was otherwise appropriate. The Court of Appeals found that the jury instruction as to the occupant's duty to keep the dwelling in a clean and sanitary provision had no relevance to the issues at trial. The plaintiff was a child when she lived in the dwelling, and whether or not her grandmother kept the house clean was irrelevant. Under Maryland law, negligent acts of a parent cannot be imputed to a child, and such negligent acts that merely contribute to an injury do not necessarily rise to the level of a superseding...
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Maryland Court of Appeals decides that Rule 5-404(b) applies only in criminal matters, not in civil matters In Ruffin Hotel Corp. of Md., Inc. v. Gasper, ___ A.3d ___ (Md. March 21, 2011), which was a retaliatory discharge case, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that it was error to instruct the jury that that plaintiff is required to prove that her opposition to the unlawful harassing conduct was a "determining" factor in the decision to terminate her employment; rather, it was only necessary for it to be a "motivating" factor in the decision. The Court also held that a negligent hiring and retention claim was not preempted by federal law, by Maryland anti-discrimination statutes, or by the Maryland Workers Compensation Act. Last but not least, the Court of Appeals held that Maryland Rule 5-404(b) is applicable only in criminal matters, not in a civil matter like this. Therefore, on retrial, the trial court need only apply Maryland Rule 5-403 on the issue whether her immediate supervisor's prior history of sexual harassment is admissible: Because the foundational requirements of FRE 404(b) are so vastly different from the foundational requirements of Md. Rule 5-404(b), we are persuaded that Md. Rule 5-404(b) should continue to be applicable only to evidence offered by the State against the defendant in a criminal case. In civil cases, whether the evidence at issue is offered by a plaintiff or by a defendant, the admissibility of relevant evidence that presents the "possibility of [unfair] prejudice is to be dealt with pursuant to [Md.] Rule [5-] 403." From the defendant's point of view, the net...

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