ANNAPOLIS – A Prince George’s County judge erred when he dismissed a county woman’s $60,000 negligence suit, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Friday.
Janet L. Neal, 33, will now get another chance to prove whether Prince George’s County officials and the Palmer Park Condominium Association were responsible for injuries she sustained during a visit to the Department of Social Services.
Neal slipped on ice and broke her leg during a January 1994 trip to the agency. She believed her appointment, to obtain medical assistance benefits for her then 4-year-old son Derek, was mandatory, court records said.
Central to the case was whether the visit was voluntary, said Judge Ellen L. Hollander, writing for the three-judge appellate panel. If it was — something that could only be determined by a jury — then Neal is not responsible for her injuries, Hollander wrote.
Despite the ice on the steps leading to the social services offices, Neal “reasonably may have believed that she lacked a genuine choice in deciding whether to comply” with her appointment, Hollander wrote.
According to briefs in the case, county lawyers argued at trial that Neal’s visit wasn’t mandatory. Upon seeing the ice, she should have taken responsibility for her own safety and not climbed them, they said.
Circuit Judge E. Allen Shepherd issued a judgment in their favor in September 1996.
But the Court of Special Appeals questioned that argument, saying by remaining open despite the inclement weather, the social services agency implied it was safe for anyone to visit.
Hollander’s opinion sent the case back to Circuit Court.
Neal’s lawyer, Stephen Rothandler, of Washington, D.C., praised the ruling and said he hoped to avoid a trial.
“We would like to settle the case without more litigation,” Rothandler said.
The defendants, Rothandler believes, fear Neal’s case could help establish a precedent that would allow more people to claim government agencies and businesses are responsible for the injuries of those who come on their property.
Whether the county will appeal to the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, depends on the outcome of a similar case currently before the Maryland’s highest court, said John A. Bielec, an associate county attorney.
In that case, Bielec said, the court must also decide whether a person is responsible for his or her own injuries sustained during an activity where participation was required. But if the county doesn’t appeal, Bielec said, it will retry the case as instructed by the court. -30-