ANNAPOLIS – In a 4-3 decision Friday, Maryland’s highest court ruled the relatives of a man killed in a car crash can collect $350,000 for the fear he experienced just before smashing into the back of a tractor trailer.
The Court of Appeals ruling overturned the decision of Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, which had said the relatives were not entitled to collect damages.
This was the first time the Appeals Court has addressed the issue of whether relatives are entitled to collect compensation for “pre-impact fright” suffered by an accident victim who dies instantly, the majority wrote.
Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, writing for the majority, argued there is in no question that, had the victim lived, he would have been entitled to damages.
Bell wrote that a victim is entitled if he experiences terror during a “legitimate window of mental anxiety.” In this case, Bell wrote, the window opened when the victim became conscious of the fact he was in imminent danger, and it closed with his death.
But Judge Alan M. Wilner, in a dissenting opinion, argued there was no way a jury could assume what went through the victim’s mind directly before impact – even if he did leave 71.5 feet of skid marks.
“It is rank speculation to conclude that Mr. Beynon was consciously thinking about anything other than stopping his vehicle,” Wilner wrote, “or, indeed, that his mind and body were engaged in anything but an instinctive reaction directed entirely at self-preservation.”
Douglas K. Beynon Jr. was killed in June 1990 when he slammed into a tractor trailer stuck in a traffic jam on the Capital Beltway. The trailer was being driven by James P. Kirkland, court records state.
Beynon’s parents sued Kirkland and James Lee, the owner of the tractor trailer, for failure to properly illuminate the rear of the vehicle. They also sued Montgomery Cable – the cable company whose repair of a broken cable helped cause the back-up – for failure to effectively alert motorists, court records say.
A Montgomery County Circuit Court jury awarded Beynon’s parents more than $3.2 million, $350,000 of which was for “pre- impact fright”: the period between when Beynon knew he was going to hit the tractor trailer and his impact.
On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals overturned the $350,000 award.
Friday’s decision from the state’s highest court reinstated it.
Under Maryland law, a victim is entitled to damages resulting from “pre-impact fright” only if he can prove he suffered injuries because of it, Bell wrote. The Court of Special Appeals had ruled that one who dies instantly cannot prove having suffered injuries from the terror before the accident. -30-