"Coleman really caused his own injury, and I don't think he should recover," he said. "When you hear the facts and you consider them, it points up the fairness of contributory negligence."

Many trial lawyers argue that Maryland's approach reduces the incentive for companies and governments to fix problems, because they are less likely to have to foot the bill for accidents.

But business groups argue that switching to the comparative approach would unfairly expose corporations and government bodies to a wave of new lawsuits. Changing the standard, they argue, would drive up the cost of doing business in Maryland and discourage people from taking responsibility for their own actions.

The precise reasons why contributory negligence was adopted in 19th century Britain are obscure, but one theory is that it was designed to protect fledgling industries. Business groups warn that the doctrine is still necessary today for the same reason.

If a change were made, "job losses could be expected," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups wrote in a brief in the Coleman case.

State and local government groups also weighed in, worried that they would be exposed to greater liability if the law is changed.

Assessing the effect of any change is difficult, legal experts say, because there is no good evidence from other states on the size of settlements or how many cases are brought. Academic studies of the issue have come to conflicting conclusions.

Vail, the lawyer for Coleman, said he expects more cases would settle because defendants would not be able to roll out their powerful defense at trial. But overall, he said, the rise in claims would be modest.

"I don't think that this change is going to have a huge effect on business," he said.

Biser, the association's lawyer, predicted more suits, adding, "I don't think more litigation is ever a good thing."

The General Assembly has taken up the issue of changing the standard numerous times in the past but never made much progress.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat who sits on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he is open to looking at the question again but added that the General Assembly would likely deadlock over any reform attempts.

Republican Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, who also sits on the committee, said she strongly opposes any change and that most of her colleagues feel the same way.

Don Gifford, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, remembers testifying in favor of a switch to a comparative model and facing "extreme pressure" from corporate lobbyists. Raskin said consumer groups and the trial lawyer lobby fight back just as hard, contributing to the stalemate.

iduncan@baltsun.com