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Md. counties may be held liable for off-sidewalk injuries, court says

Matthew J. Fader speaks Monday at his investiture. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The government is obligated to protect pedestrians from dangers that would not be expected, wrote Court of Special Appeals Judge Matthew J. Fader, shown here at his 2017 investiture. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Counties can be held liable for injuries resulting from their failure to properly install equipment on off-sidewalk walkways, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Thursday in upholding a $50,000 award to a woman who tripped over a water meter lid in a grassy area in Anne Arundel County.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals rejected the county’s argument that it had governmental immunity from the lawsuit because Janine Fratantuono’s injury had not occurred on a county sidewalk.

The court said the immunity applies when counties are performing “governmental” duties, such as preserving public parks and swimming pools, and not “proprietary functions” such as maintaining streets, sidewalks and “contiguous” areas, including grassy paths the counties would expect to be used as public walkways, the court held.

A “local government’s duties with respect to (an) unpaved area (are) less than they would be in a paved area, but … the government nonetheless (is) obligated to protect pedestrians from ‘dangers of a kind that would not be expected by foot passengers, dangers in the nature of traps,’” Judge Matthew J. Fader wrote for the intermediate court, quoting from the Maryland Court of Appeals’ 1934 decision in Mayor & City Council of Hagerstown v. Hertzler.

“Here, the jury concluded that the county’s failure to maintain the water-meter lid in a safe condition allowed it to flip without any warning or notice, which in turn allowed Ms. Fratantuono’s leg to fall into the hole and resulted in her injuries,” Fader added. “This danger constitutes just the sort of trap that renders such an unpaved area not reasonably safe for pedestrian use.”

When the sidewalk ended, Fratantuono walked on the grass near where Maple and Camp Meade roads intersect in Linthicum, she claimed.

She placed her right foot on the lid, flipping it up, and her left foot went into the exposed hole, causing her injury, she added.

Fratantuono sued the county, alleging it was negligent in its construction, installation and maintenance of the lid.

The county moved for summary judgment, arguing in vain it had governmental immunity from the suit. The Anne Arundel County Circuit jury ruled for Fratantuona and awarded her $50,806 in compensation for the Dec. 27, 2014, incident.

The county appealed.

In upholding the verdict, the Court of Special Appeals cited what it said was “sometimes known as the ‘public ways’ exception to governmental immunity.”

Fader was joined in the opinion by Judges Alexander Wright Jr. and James R. Eyler, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment. The court issued its decision in Anne Arundel County, Md., v. Janine Fratantuono, No. 1 September Term 2017.

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