Local Government Employees May Not Sue Their Co-Employees For Tortious Acts Committed Within The Scope Of Their Employment, Says Unanimous Court Of Special Appeals

by Matthew J. Focht
March 2nd, 2015

 

In a recent ruling from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Blue v. Arrington, Case No. 1036, Sept. Term 2013, (January 30, 2015), the court upheld the provision of the Maryland Local Government Tort Claims Act (“LGTCA”) which prohibits a local government employee from suing “a fellow employee for tortious acts or omissions committed within the scope of employment if the injury sustained by the local government employee is compensable under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act.” See Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 503(c).

Stinyard A. Blue and Antonio Arrington were employed by Baltimore City. Mr. Blue was a “Seasonal Maintenance Aide” and Mr. Arrington was a garbage truck driver. On July 5, 2011, while performing his job duties, Mr. Blue was “side mounted on the outside of the garbage truck that Arrington was driving.” The record in the case further indicates that “while talking on a cell phone, Arrington attempted to make a turn, crushing Blue’s legs and abdomen between a fence and a brick wall as he clung to the side of the truck.” Mr. Blue then filed a claim for benefits under the Maryland Worker’s Compensation Act and thereafter filed a negligence claim against Arrington in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. In particular, Mr. Blue contended that Mr. Arrington “had a duty of care to operate his vehicle in a proper fashion and [had] breached this duty of care by failing to properly turn his vehicle while keeping a proper lookout” for Mr. Blue. In response to this suit, Mr. Arrington moved to dismiss, citing § 503(c) of the LGTCA. The circuit court accepted this argument, finding that workers’ compensation was Mr. Blue’s “exclusive remedy” for his injuries. This finding was in contrast to Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-902, which provides that “a co-employee is considered a third party against whom a suit for damages may be brought.” See Bd. of Educ. of Prince George’s Cnty. v. Marks-Sloan, 428 Md. 1, 33 (2012).

Mr. Blue appealed the dismissal of his case, contending that § 503(c) of the LGTCA violated his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as his right under Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights to a legal remedy for his injury.

Writing for the court, Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser applied a “rational-basis test” in determining whether the dismissal violated Mr. Blue’s equal protection rights. Under the rational basis test, “a classification will not be overturned unless the varying treatment of different groups or persons is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that the court can only conclude that the governmental actions were irrational” (internal quotation and citation omitted). In this regard, “[a] statutory classification reviewed under the rational basis standard of review enjoys a strong presumption of constitutionality and will be invalidated only if the classification is clearly arbitrary[.]”

Applying the rational-basis test, the Court of Special Appeals wrote that:

[T]he limitation imposed on the right of local government employees to sue a fellow employee for tortious acts or omissions…is related to the legitimate governmental purpose of [LGTCA]. It assists local governments in better predicting future costs and expenses by providing them with some protection against unanticipated tort judgments stemming from suits between local government employees. Indeed, without this protection, taxpayers would face…either higher taxes or reduced services. Finally, notwithstanding the statute’s limitation on suits between co-employees, injured local government employees are still entitled to worker’s compensation for their injuries. Thus, the protection granted by the [LGTCA] to local governments from having to defend against suits brought by one employee against another is not clearly arbitrary and therefore does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. (Internal quotation omitted and ellipsis added.)

The Court then went on to hold that:

Similarly, [LGTCA] reasonably restricts, without abolishing, a local government employee’s access to the courts. It prevents a local government employee from suing a co-employee when his injury is compensable under the Maryland Worker’s Compensation Act and the co-employee’s acts or omissions were within the scope of his employment, as the injured employee may seek compensation by filing a claim under the Worker’s Compensation Act…Moreover, the statute does not prevent an injured local government employee from suing a co-employee when his fellow employee committed the tort at issue outside the scope of his employment or when the injured local government employee is not eligible for worker’s compensation. And, as we have explained, the restriction on access to the courts under [LGTCA] is designed to prevent taxpayers from facing higher taxes or reduced governmental services. In light of these goals, the statute’s restriction on access to the courts is reasonable and does not violate Article 19 [of the Maryland Declaration of Rights]. (Internal quotations omitted and ellipsis added.)

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Blue will petition the Maryland Court of Appeals for review of the ruling below. Such a petition for certiorari would be due in the Court of Appeals no later than the later of 15 days after the Court of Special Appeals issues its mandate or 30 days after the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion (January 30, 2015). See Md. Rule 8-302(a). Given the constitutional implications of the Court of Special Appeals, it would not be surprising if the Court of Appeals agreed to take up Mr. Blue’s case. The JGL Blog will update this post in the event that certiorari is granted.  

Matt Focht is a trial lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury practice group. He helps individuals who have been seriously injured in avoidable accidents recover the compensation they deserve in litigation before state and federal courts throughout Maryland and the D.C. area. Matt has deep experience in managing a broad range of high-stakes personal injury matters on behalf of victims and surviving family members, including automobile accidents, wrongful death cases and a variety of other serious accidents caused by negligence.

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