The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has addressed a blind spot in case law regarding which victims may claim a defendant’s money and assets in a case involving multiple individuals who are equally harmed.
The case of Estate of Summers v. Nisbet stems from the deadliest fire in Maine in over 40 years. The blaze broke out in a two-unit home in 2014 in Portland. Six people were killed.
In the aftermath, it was alleged the landlord was negligent in maintaining the property in safe condition, which played a central role in the fire. Soon after, families began filing wrongful death lawsuits against the landlord, who also faces six criminal counts of manslaughter.
The family of one man, Steven Summers, was the first to file a claim for damages in court. However, his widow, as personal representative of his estate, did so by filing what is known as an ex parte attachment. It is a claim that is not made public until after the defendant – here, the landlord – goes through a process of challenging that attachment. It’s a secretive process intended to block a defendant’s assets without warning, to prevent the defendant from concealing property or money to avoid having to part with it to satisfy the judgment.
However in this Portland wrongful death case, Summers’ widow filed her claim first, which meant under Maine’s first-come, first-served system in civil litigation, she was first in line for a payout. However, she was removed from the front of the line by a lower court after the other victims sued.
The issue was that the lawsuits were filed differently: the Summers’ estate via an ex parte attachment and the others in straight attachments that notified the defendant upfront.
Although the Superior Court judge granted Summers’ ex parte attachment in late 2014, a different judge removed it in order to grant the other plaintiffs’ straight attachments to defendant’s assets. Then the straight attachment plaintiffs’ were given top priority over Summers.
Summers filed an appeal, arguing her claim should have been first in line because she filed first, even if it was ex parte.
For the most part, Maine’s highest court concurred, reversing the lower court in a unanimous decision. In its ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court dissolved the ex parte attachment filing – as the lower court had done – but instead replaced it with a straight attachment and allowed her to keep her place at the front of the line.
The court noted that the only consideration before the lower court on this issue should have been whether Summers’ estate had established the elements necessary to obtain an attachment. And none of the other plaintiffs had successfully challenged Summers’ right to an attachment. That meant that it was a mistake for the lower court to dissolve the ex parte attachment without allowing plaintiff to maintain her standing.
But while the case does set precedent, it might be mostly symbolic for the plaintiffs. That’s because defendant appears to have few assets that could be used to satisfy plaintiff’s claims.
If you have been injured in Portland, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-490-5218 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Estate of Summers v. Nisbet , June 7, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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