Tenants in a downtown apartment complex in Brunswick were evacuated from their homes recently when fire department officials deemed the rampant code violations a threat to their safety. According to the Bangor Daily News report, those conditions included:
- Blocked emergency exits;
- Non-functioning smoke-detectors;
- Inadequate fire doors;
- Lack of sprinkler systems over the building boiler.
Officials report the property owner was in the midst of making changes, and indicated it wouldn’t be long before residents could move back in. What’s surprising is not that these conditions existed, but that they were caught before no one was seriously hurt.
Property owners in Maine owe a duty to protect their business invitees and licensees from an unreasonable risk of harm. We’re all familiar with cases of “slip-and-fall” or “trip-and-fall,” where property owners knew about the existence of a slippery substance or crack in the floor and failed to clean it up or fix it and someone fell and got hurt as a result. While either of these scenarios could make a property owner vulnerable to litigation, it may not break any laws.
However, when a hazard is created to guests, tenants and business invitees due to direct safety code violations, this is an egregious form of negligence. Plaintiffs in such situations could make a strong case that the property owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the danger (a key element in premises liability lawsuits). Additionally, if there had been multiple warnings about a specific hazard that was illegal, never corrected and later results in injury, our Bangor premises liability attorneys know that might be grounds to pursue punitive damages.
Contrary to compensatory damages, which are intended to make plaintiffs whole, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter such egregious action in the future. Most courts are reticent to allow the pursuit of punitive damages in all but the most serious cases. But if a plaintiff can show blatant and repeated disregard for the law and public safety, it’s tough to get much more egregious.
Officials in Brunswick are especially sensitive to this issue, following a horrific fire in a Maine Street apartment building three years ago. That structure, too, was known to have numerous safety violations, and fire officials were slow to force tenants out if they didn’t have to do so. They kept trying to work with the landlord. But then disaster struck in the form of a three-alarm blaze, destroying a landmark building, leaving 17 people (including a 6-month-old baby) homeless and decimating at least three small businesses.
Of the most recent evacuation, the fire chief was quoted as saying he’d rather be questioned on “Why are you doing this?” then later asked, “Why didn’t you do more?”
He said officials have been working with the landlord for several months, but changes have been slow to come. Fire officials decided tenants’ safety could no longer be risked.
Aside from fire hazards, older buildings often require a greater degree of maintenance in general. Property owners need to take great care in assuring:
- Stairwells and common areas are properly lit;
- Stairs are even and sturdy;
- Flooring is chipped and carpet isn’t bunched;
- Roofs are in good repair to prevent leaking, which can lead to slippery floors;
- Entryways and sidewalks are kept in good repair and free of cracks;
- Any holes or uneven steps are clearly marked until they can be repaired;
- Wiring is kept unexposed and in good working condition.
A deficiency in any one of these areas can result in serious injury to you or a loved one.
If you are a victim of a dangerous property in Bangor, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-490-5218 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Tenants forced from building by safety violations likely to return within a week, Sept. 25, 2014, By Peter L. McGuire, The Forecaster, Bangor Daily News
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