Can an Undocumented and illegal alien file suit in a Maryland Court for personal injuries?

The simple answer is yes an undocumented immigrant or illegal alien can file suit in a Maryland Court for personal injuries . While Maryland has not directly addressed this issue, The Maryland Appellate Courts have recently decided two cases where the court could have decided the cases on that issue and failed to do so.

The first case RIGOBERTO E. DOMINGOS AYALA, ET AL. v. ROBERT FREDERICK LEE 215 Md. App. 457, 81 A.3d 584 (2013), involved an illegal alien who was making a personal injury claim involving a serious car accident.  The central issue in that case was: Is a plaintiff’s status as an undocumented immigrant relevant and admissible evidence in this personal injury action?  The Court could have decided the case by finding that the Plaintiff would have no standing to bring the suit if evidence was presented that the Plaintiff was illegally inside the country. Instead the Court found that more often than not immigration status is either irrelevant or the prejudice of this line of questioning outweighs the probative value.

Yet relevant evidence “may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.” Md. Rule 5-403. Immigration status is prejudicial in that it “introduces a factor into the case that might encourage the jury to dislike or disapprove of [a party] independent of the merits.” United States v. Amaya-Manzanares, 17 377 F.3d 39, 45 (1st Cir. 2004). See also United States v. Almeida-Perez, 549 F.3d 1162, 1174 (8th Cir. 2008) (“[T]he use of [immigration] evidence is fraught with the danger of prejudice to a defendant by introducing the possibility of invidious discrimination on the basis of alienage.”); Galaviz-Zamora v. Brady Farms, Inc., 230 F.R.D. 499, 502 (W.D. Mich. 2005) (“[D]amage and prejudice which would result . . . if discovery into . . . immigration However, immigration status is irrelevant on the question of liability. Hagl v. Jacob 16 Stern & Sons, Inc., 396 F. Supp. 779, 784 (E.D. Penn. 1975); Melendres v. Soales, 306 N.W.2d 399, 402 (Mich. Ct. App. 1981). .. Courts that have balanced the relevance and prejudice inquiries have frequently come down on the side of “prejudicial” because of the low probative value of evidence of immigration status. The risk of deportation of an undocumented immigrant is very small, and the majority of courts that have considered the issue have held that the mere 18 chance of deportation is not a sufficient basis for the introduction of immigration-related evidence. See, e.g., Hernandez v. M/V Rajaan, 848 F.2d 498, 500 (5th Cir. 1988) (no error in excluding immigration evidence because there was “no proof that [the plaintiff] was about to be deported or would surely be deported”); Hagl v. Jacob Stern & Sons, Inc., 396 F. Supp. 779, 785 (E.D. Penn. 1975) (“[T]here was nothing which would have justified the jury’s reducing damages because plaintiff is an alien who might conceivably face some unspecified immigration action at an unknown time.”);

The other Maryland appellate case that addressed the issue of immigration status was  Design Kitchen & Baths v. Lagos, 388 Md. 718, 721 (2005). The Court of Appeals considered the effect of the IRCA and Hoffman on “the eligibility of an undocumented alien to receive workers’ compensation.” The Court of Appeals found that the purpose of the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act, state public policy, and the lack of federal preemption all pointed in favor of awarding workers’ compensation regardless of immigration status. Id. at 729-40. Although the Court did not expressly state that the IRCA did not preempt state law, it adopted the reasoning of other courts that concluded that the IRCA “itself gives no indication that Congress intended the act to preempt state laws whenever state laws operate to benefit undocumented aliens.” Id. at 738 (quoting Dowling v. Slotnik, 712 A.2d 396, 404 (Conn. 1998)).

The Supreme Court of the United States seem to address this issue in Other state laws have made similar findings affirming the rights of undocumented aliens to bring personal injury lawsuits. In Phyler v. Doe (457 US 202 (1982) the US Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause was applicable to illegal aliens. Phyler was a class action case brought by illegal aliens being denied access to a public school education in Texas. If they had standing to sue and argue in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, then they certainly have standing to bring a civil action in the District Courts of Maryland. Quote: “Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a “person” in any ordinary sense of that term.”

Denying an illegal immigrant access to the judicial system is unquestionably a denial of due process and equal protection.

Other states have taken the position that illegal aliens can file lawsuits in Unites States Courts.

It was implicit in Ayala v. Lee, 215 Md. App. 457 (2013), that a plaintiff’s undocumented status does not disable the plaintiff from brining a lawsuit.  Nor should it.  As Justice Holmes wrote for the Supreme Court in a different context, “a person does not become an outlaw and lose all rights by doing an illegal act.”  National Bank & Loan Company of Watertown v. Petrie, 189 U.S. 423, 425 (1903).  Indeed, four weeks after Justice Holmes filed that opinion, the Supreme Court said the following:[T]his court has never held, nor must we now be understood as holding, that administrative officers, when executing the provisions of a statute involving the liberty of persons, may disregard the fundamental principles that inhere in “due process of law” as understood at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. One of these principles is that no person shall be deprived of his liberty without opportunity, at some time, to be heard, before such officers, in respect of the matters upon which that liberty depends — not necessarily an opportunity upon a regular, set occasion, and according to the forms of judicial procedure, but one that will secure the prompt, vigorous action contemplated by Congress, and at the same time be appropriate to the nature of the case upon which such officers are required to act.  Therefore, it is not competent for the Secretary of the Treasury or any executive officer, at any time within the year limited by the statute, arbitrarily to cause an alien, who has entered the country, and has become subject in all respects to its jurisdiction, and a part of its population, although alleged to be illegally here, to be taken into custody and deported without giving him all opportunity to be heard upon the questions involving his right to be and remain in the United States.  No such arbitrary power can exist where the principles involved in due process of law are recognized.

The Japanese Immigrant Case, 189 U.S. 86, 100-01 (1903) (emphasis supplied. One of the rights secured by the Maryland Declaration of Rights is: That every man, for any injury done to him in his person or property, ought to have remedy by the course of the Law of the land, and ought to have justice and right, freely without sale, fully without any denial, and speedily without delay, according to the Law of the land.Md. Dec. of Rights, Art. 19 (emphasis supplied).

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Indiana held that the “Open Courts Clause” of the Indiana Constitution guaranteed undocumented persons access to the state’s courts to pursue decreased earning capacity claims, and that federal law did not mandate a different result.  Escamilla v. Shiel Sexton Co., 73 N.E.3d 663, 666-68 (Ind. 2017).  (The Open Courts Clause provides: “All courts shall be open; and every person, for injury done to him in his person, property, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law.  Justice shall be administered freely, and without purchase; completely, and without denial; speedily, and without delay.”  Ind. Const. Art. 1, § 12.)

In another recent decision, the Supreme Court of Mississippi likewise cited provisions of that state’s constitution when holding that undocumented persons have a right of access to the state’s courts.  See McKean v. Yates Engineering Corporation, 200 So.3d 431, 436-37 (Miss. 2016).

And courts in other jurisdictions have held that undocumented persons may file tort actions for personal injuries.  See Rosa v. Partners in Progress, 868 A.2d 994 (N.H. 2005); Janusis v. Long, 188 N.E. 228 (Mass. 1933); Torres v. Sierra, 553 P.2d 721, 724 (N.M. Ct. App.), cert. denied, 558 P.2d 620 (N.M. 1976); Commercial Standard Fire and Marine Company v. Galindo, 484 S.W.2d 635 (Tex. Ct. Civ. App. 1972); Arteaga v. Allen, 99 F.2d 509, 510 (5th Cir, 1938); Martinez v. Fox Valley Bus Lines, Inc., 17 F. Supp. 576 (N.D. Ill. 1936).

In Peterson v. Neme, 281 S.E.2d 869 (Va. 1981), the Supreme Court of Virginia specifically held that undocumented persons in personal injury cases may recover damages for past lost wages.  In Montoya v. Gateway Insurance Company, 401 A.2d 1102, 1103-04 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.), certification denied, 401 A.2d 1102 (N.J. 1979), a New Jersey intermediate appellate court held that the undocumented plaintiff could sue to attempt to recover Personal Injury Protection benefits under an automobile insurance policy.

There was actually one case, decided long ago, which held that undocumented persons could not sue, at least in the circumstances presented to the court.  In Coules v. Pharris, 250 N.W. 404 (Wis. 1933), an undocumented person sued to recover wages that were allegedly owed for the performance of labor.  The plaintiff prevailed in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed and ordered the dismissal of the action.  The Wisconsin high court said: We are of the opinion that our courts cannot properly assist one who, while unlawfully here, engages in competition with laborers lawfully here in seeking benefits to be obtained only by avoiding the law of the land.  Denied the means of collecting for his labor, he will not be likely to succeed in maintaining himself and accomplishing his cheat upon the government.Id. at 404.

Coules  was, of course, decided during the Great Depression and its horrific and dislocating unemployment.  The unemployment rate in 1933 was nearly 25 percent.  The court handed down its decision a little more than seven months after Franklin Roosevelt took office as president.  The decision was never cited favorably by any court outside of Wisconsin.  See Roberto v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 177 F.2d 811, 813 (7th Cir. 1949), cert. denied, 339 U.S. 920 (1950).

In 1978, in Arteaga v. Literski, 265 N.W.2d 148 (Wis. 1978), the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled Coules, at least to the extent that it was inconsistent with its later decision.  Arteaga involved a tort action in which the undocumented plaintiffs sued their landlord, their landlord’s insurer, and the gas company for personal injuries that the plaintiffs allegedly suffered as a result of gas explosion in the home where they were living.  The trial court dismissed the action on the authority of Coules, holding that the plaintiffs lacked the capacity to sue because of their immigration status. This time, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed.  It noted that “[t]he soundness of the Coules decision was questioned from an early date.”  Id. at 149.  It then said that the rationale of Coules was not applicable to the case before it:

[I]n this case the illegal aliens are claiming compensation for personal injuries and not wages.  But, again, if the policy is to discourage illegal immigration, that policy is not furthered by refusing aliens access to the courts.  It cannot be seriously argued that people enter this country illegally so they can recover for an injury that will be inflicted upon them later. Moreover, landlords will not be discouraged from providing housing for aliens they know to be here illegally if the landlords can negligently injure the aliens and bear no responsibility for their negligence. Id. at 150.  The court also cited the provision of the Wisconsin Constitution that guarantees remedies for wrongs.  Id.

In the end, the Wisconsin high court concluded that “[t]here is no public policy that is served by refusing access to our courts to illegal aliens who are injured through the negligence of another.  The sources of our basic concepts of justice between people is that there should be even handed justice meted out to all.”  Id.  It specifically held that “illegal aliens have the right to sue in the courts of the State of Wisconsin for personal injuries negligently inflicted upon them.”  Id.  The court overruled Coules “[t]o the extent that” it could “be interpreted as holding that illegal aliens have no access to the courts.”  Id.

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