Most of the time, the defendant must have acted negligently, recklessly, or intentionally to be held liable in personal injury cases. However, occasionally the defendant may be found liable even if they acted without negligence. This concept is referred to as “strict liability.”
Maryland recognizes strict liability in these types of personal injury cases:
- Abnormally dangerous activities. In this case, the defendant property owner engages in an abnormally dangerous activity on their land, which causes injury to another.
- Products liability. The defendant’s product, which they designed, manufactured, or sold to the plaintiff, injures the plaintiff because it is defective.
In either case, negligence, recklessness, or intent is not required on the defendant’s part. They are strictly liable for committing the act.
Abnormally Dangerous Activities in Maryland
The general rule is that “the defendant will be liable when [they damage] another by a thing or activity unduly dangerous and inappropriate to the place where it is maintained, in the light of the character of that place and its surroundings.” Yommer v. McKenzie, 255 Md. 220, 257 A.2d 138 (Md. 1969).
To determine whether an activity is abnormally dangerous, the court considers:
- Whether the activity poses a high degree of risk of harm to another person or that person’s property;
- If the gravity of harm resulting from the activity is likely to be great;
- Whether the risk can be prevented by exercising reasonable care;
- If the activity is not commonplace;
- Whether the activity is unsuitable at the location it is conducted at; and
- The benefit of the activity to the community.
Abnormally dangerous activities often involve hazardous materials, nuclear materials, or radiation.
In one early case, the plaintiffs’ neighbor operated a gas station. One day, the plaintiffs noticed a smell in the water from their well. They had the water analyzed, and it turned out that the water was contaminated with gasoline from the neighbor’s operation. This forced the plaintiffs to install a filter and water softener so that they could use the well water for cooking and bathing. They had to buy drinking water.
The plaintiffs sued their neighbor, and the court analyzed it under the doctrine of strict liability. The court found that the close proximity of the defendant’s sizeable underground gasoline tank to the plaintiffs’ property involved a high degree of risk to the plaintiffs’ well water. The court also found that such a large underground storage tank was not a commonplace activity in the community. The plaintiffs’ prevailed.
Products Liability in Maryland
A person or company that designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product can be held strictly liable for the injury it causes to another person or the person’s property.
To prevail on a products liability claim, the plaintiff must prove:
- The product was defective when it left the seller’s possession;
- The product was unreasonably dangerous to the user;
- The defect caused the injuries; and
- The product experienced no substantial change in its condition on its way to the user.
There are three types of defective products: design, manufacturing, and inadequate warnings.
A design defect occurs when the design of a product causes an unreasonable risk of injury to consumers. In other words, even when manufactured properly, the product is still dangerous due to its design.
Whether a product has a design defect depends on several factors.
Courts analyze what it would take to manufacture the product without the design defect, including:
- Technological feasibility of manufacturing;
- Availability of materials required for manufacture;
- Cost of production;
- Price to the consumer; and
- Consumer acceptance.
Common examples of design defects include building materials that can’t withstand the cold, sharp tools without safeguards for the blades, and the use of materials that can easily break and shatter.
A manufacturing defect means that the product differs from the manufacturer’s design and specifications or varies from other typical units of the same product line. In other words, the product’s design is sound, but an isolated product or batch of the products deviated from the design during manufacturing and caused defects.
For example, in one case, a mechanic was injured while working on a truck engine. He was using a 3/4-inch ratchet wrench. When attempting to remove a bolt, the wrench shattered, its parts hit the worker, and he fell off the truck and sustained neck and shoulder injuries.
The court found the parts used in the manufacture of the particular wrench did not have the required hardness. Its metal parts were too soft. This is an example of a manufacturing defect.
These types of cases involve products that could be used in a foreseeably dangerous way. The design and manufacturing of the product cannot cure the dangers. So, in these instances, the manufacturer must adequately warn the consumer about the dangers of use in a clear manner.
Other Strict Liability Laws
Strict liability is not confined to personal injury law in Maryland. It is also used in other legal fields.
Strict liability applies to many of Maryland’s criminal laws. For instance, it is a crime for someone to have sexual relations with a minor in Maryland. If the defendant is four or more years older than a sexual partner who is 14 or younger, they have strict liability for a sexual offense.
The government does not have to prove they knew they were committing a crime. And the defendant cannot claim they were mistaken about the age of the minor to defend themselves. They are strictly liable for having engaged in the conduct.
A person or company can also be held strictly liable for some environmental crimes in Maryland.
Under Maryland’s environmental law:
“Any person who drills for oil or gas on the lands or in the waters of the State is strictly liable for any damages that occur in exploration, drilling, or producing operations or in the plugging of the person’s oil or gas wells, including liability to the State for any environmental damage.”
A driller who causes damage is strictly liable. No party has to prove the driller was negligent in holding them accountable for the environmental violations.
Our Lawyers Can Help in These Complicated Areas of the Law
Many people are injured due to a neighbor’s abnormally dangerous activity or a manufacturer’s defective product. The law in both areas is complicated, so don’t hesitate to seek out our knowledgeable and experienced personal injury attorneys.