Estate of Gagnon v. Anthony – Comparative Fault in Maine Personal Injury Lawsuit

The issue of comparative fault in Maine personal injury lawsuits is a significant one because, depending on the degree of it, an injured person’s right to collect damages may be significantly reduced or eliminated entirely. treestump

Maine Revised Statute Titel 14 Part 1 Chapter 7 Section 156 covers “comparative negligence.” The law states that when a person suffers death or damages that are party the result of that person’s own fault, the claim isn’t barred entirely, but the amount of damages recoverable are to be reduced to such an extent the jury believes equitable, accounting for claimant’s share of responsibility. So if a plaintiff wins $100,000 in damages but is deemed to be 25 percent comparatively negligent, he or she will only collect $75,000 from defendant.

If a plaintiff is determined to be equally or more at-fault for his or her injuries, plaintiff cannot recovery any damages.

The rules on comparative fault vary from state-to-state. Some allow plaintiffs to recover even if they are 99 percent at fault, while others will prohibit a plaintiff from collecting on a claim if he or she is even 1 percent at-fault. Maine is in the middle on this issue.

In the recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court case of Estate of Gagnon v. Anthony, the issue of comparative negligence was central.

Defendant was an experienced woodcutter who asked plaintiff, his neighbor, to help him take down a rotting tree in defendant’s front yard. Plaintiff, too, was an experienced woodcutter. The tree they were taking down was about 30 inches in diameter, and it had one large limb growing out of it. Plaintiff used a chain saw to make a wedge cut in the tree just below that limb, while defendant used the bucket of a skid-steer loader to push the limb away from the house.

Without warning, the tree “exploded,” as both men would later describe it. The limb fell onto plaintiff, causing him to fall and be pinned to the ground. He suffered serious personal injuries.

Plaintiff later sued defendant, alleging negligence. He asserted defendant should have warned him about the possibility the limb could snap due to the rotted condition of the tree, and also that defendant negligently operated the machinery. Defendant answered the complaint by asserting comparative negligence.

Plaintiff died of unrelated causes while trial was pending. His estate was substituted as plaintiff. At trial, the court heard recorded statements from decedent about how neither man expected the tree to explode as it did. Further, in his statement, he placed no blame on his neighbor, saying he didn’t believe anything defendant did with the equipment caused the tree to break or fall too soon.

Following a two-day trial, jurors held that while defendant was negligent, plaintiff was equally negligent. Thus, per Maine law, the estate was entitled to nothing.

Estate appealed, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed. The court opined that based on the evidence a reasonable jury could have found:

  • Defendant was negligent in his operation of equipment;
  • Either defendant or plaintiff or both were negligent because of the dangerous method they used to take down a rotted tree – a danger that should have been obvious to both given their professional experience;
  • Neither was negligent, and the incident was simply an unfortunate and unexpected accident.

In cases where causal fault of both parties is in dispute, the court gives juries the “sole prerogative” to ascertain comparative degrees of fault. Here, jurors found both men were negligent, but plaintiff’s negligence was at least equal to or greater than the fault of defendant in causing these injuries.

If you are the victim of a Bangor car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Estate of Gagnon v. Anthony, Nov. 10, 2015, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Hill-Spotswood v. Mayhew et al. – Injured Worker Seeks State Liability for Attack by Patient, Oct. 30, 2015, Bangor Personal Injury Attorney Blog