Articles Posted in Premise Liability

Recently, the City of Portland appealed a denial of its motion for summary judgment on immunity grounds in a Maine slip-and-fall lawsuit. In this case, the plaintiff suffered various injuries after, slipping and falling on ice outside of the Portland Police Department Headquarters’ lobby. Evidently, the plaintiff fell on a partially open brick-paved plaza about seven feet from the exit. The particular location is part of the defendant’s building and is used as a parking area and holding pen. The victim and his wife filed a negligence lawsuit against the City. In response, the City filed various affirmative defenses, including being immune under the Maine Tort Claims Act (MTCA).

Under the MTCA, “all governmental entities shall be immune from suit on any tort claims seeking recovery.” However, the immunity is subject to several exceptions, including the “public building” exception. Under the statute, a “public building” is one that is accessible to the public and serves a public function. When a dispute arises regarding whether an area “belongs” to a building, courts review the area to determine whether it is a “fixture.” The law defines a fixture as something that is “physically annexed” to the property, adapted to the realty, and intended to be irremovable from the property. Similarly, an appurtenance is an object that belongs or is attached to a public building, not including personal property outside the building.

In this case, the defendants argued that the area the plaintiff’s fall did not fit into the statute’s public building exception. The plaintiff did not argue that the area was, in fact, a “public building,” rather, they argued that the plaza was a part of the defendant’s building. In the alternative, the plaintiff contended that the plaza was an appurtenance or a fixture to the building.

Amidst COVID-19 concerns, parents are trying to find engaging, stimulating, and safe ways to keep their children occupied during the summer. One of the most popular activities that children can continue to participate in during this challenging time is swimming. However, Maine swimming pool accidents are a frequent and tragic occurrence, and pool owners and parents must understand the risks and liability of this activity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and a new report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), swimming accidents are the leading cause of unintentional death for children between the ages of 1 to 4. New data by the CPSC indicates that there has been a steady increase in pool- or spa-related fatal accidents, with nearly 400 deaths last year. Residential pool accidents account for over 70% of these deadly accidents. Additionally, the data reveals that there have been almost 7,000 pool or spa-related emergency department nonfatal child drowning visits between 2017 and 2019.

Maine pool owners, caregivers, and parents should adhere to pool safety guidelines to prevent these types of accidents. Pool Safely, a national public education campaign, provides individuals with steps to reduce these incidences. The instructions advise parents to never leave a child unattended near or in the water. Parents should designate an adult watcher to vigilantly watch children while they are around water. These individuals should refrain from reading, using their phones, or engaging in potentially distracting activities. Pool owners should install fences and self-latching gates, and their pools should comply with all federal safety standards.

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Maine wrongful death case discussing whether a business owner can be held liable for the intentional, violent acts of a third party, and if so, under what circumstances. Ultimately, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s case was properly dismissed by the lower court because the plaintiff failed to show that the assault was foreseeable.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a woman was shopping at the defendant supermarket when another female customer approached the woman and attacked her with a knife. The woman died as a result of the attack, and her husband subsequently filed a Maine wrongful death claim against the supermarket, claiming that it was negligent in protecting his wife from the assault.

Evidently, the woman who stabbed the plaintiff’s wife was known in the community, as well as by store management. In fact, there had been several reports that the woman was acting menacingly in front of the store; however, there had been no reports that she ever threatened a customer. And no store employee ever saw her with a weapon. However, customers would occasionally complain that the woman’s physical presence alone was intimidating (apparently, she wore very baggy clothes and had a shaved head). At one point, the woman was banned from the store.

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Under Maine premises liability law, landowners and occupiers generally owe a duty to ensure that their property is free from dangerous conditions that could result in unreasonable harm to lawful visitors. Unlike other states, which rely on the classification-of-status approach to premises liability, Maine determines liability based on the injury victim, the cause of the injury, and if the property owner did anything to prevent the damage. This framework applies to landowners, retail stores, some recreational areas, and private individuals. It does not apply to trespassers except if an attractive nuisance is involved. Further, Maine law provides landowners with specific defenses to liability that may limit a plaintiff’s recovery.

Maine’s comparative negligence principles allow plaintiffs to recover for damages even if they were partially responsible so long as they were less than 50% responsible. Defendants will frequently assert comparative negligence defenses by claiming that the dangerous condition was so “open and obvious” that the landowner should not be liable. However, exceptions exist in circumstances where the landowner should anticipate the harm despite the obviousness of the danger. Determinations regarding open and obviousness require a thorough and in-depth analysis of the specific condition.

For example, a state appellate court recently issued an opinion in a case hinging on whether a hole in a parking lot of a shopping center was an open and obvious danger. In that case, a woman parked in a parking spot next to a landscape island that was surrounded by a curb. As she exited her vehicle, she noticed that someone left a shopping cart partially on the island, and she walked around the island to get the cart. As she was dislodging the cart, she stepped back, and her heel went into a pothole, which caused her to lose her balance and fall backward, resulting in serious injuries. The woman filed a lawsuit against the shopping center alleging negligence and wantonness because they failed to warn invitees of hidden dangers. The trial court found that the risk was open and obvious and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Property owners have a responsibility to make sure that their premises are safe for visitors; this often includes clearing snow and ice during the winter season. In some instances, individuals who suffer injuries because of a slip and fall on ice or snow may be able to hold the property owner or business owner responsible for their damages. Accidents that occur on icy or snowy walkways, parking lots, and steps can lead to severe injuries, including broken bones, concussions, spinal cord injuries, and even death.

Generally, there are three ways in which a Maine property owner or business may be liable for injuries during a weather-related slip and fall. The three main situations are:  1.) if the owner contributed to the dangerous condition that caused the fall, 2.) if the owner knew about the hazardous condition but failed to fix it, or 3.) if the owner should have known about the dangerous situation. Property owners typically include commercial businesses, such as stores, restaurants, and apartment complexes. Owners also include residential homeowners, including people who own private homes, condominiums, and townhouses. Finally, owners include properties that are run by the government, such as post offices, police stations, and courthouses.

Liability for typical slip and fall accidents often hinges on the duty that the property owner owed the injured party. The extent of a duty owed to a guest depends on whether the injured person is classified as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. However, challenges establishing liability arise when the slip and fall occurs because of snowy and icy conditions. Generally, Maine does not have a state statute that requires property owners to remove snow and ice from their property; however, certain towns may have local ordinances that do impose liability. In many cases, courts will look at what a “reasonable” property owner should be expected to do in similar circumstances. For example, the court may look at where the snow or ice accumulated, how much time between previous removal and accumulation had elapsed when the slip and fall occurred, or whether the business was in operation when the dangerous condition arose. Many cities are urging their residents to engage in safe driving and pedestrian practices to avoid injuring themselves or someone else during the winter season.

Historically, the doctrine of sovereign immunity barred private citizens from filing lawsuits against tortious government employees and entities. In response to the inherent unfairness of this broad prohibition, legislators enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA (the “Act”) provides Maine citizens a mechanism to sue federal government employees for tortious acts in federal courts. However, the Maine Tort Claim Act (MTCA) is more restrictive and only allows private citizens to sue local and state government entities officials under very particular circumstances.

The MTCA allows injury victims to file lawsuits against Maine government employees and entities in four main situations. First, when the claim for bodily injury or property damage is based on the government’s negligent ownership or maintenance of vehicles, machinery, and equipment. This includes injuries that occur while the government employee is using a car, special mobile equipment, trailers, aircraft, watercraft, and other similar vehicles. Second, the government may face liability when the injury occurs at a public building. Public buildings typically include libraries, police stations, and public schools. However, there are exceptions, and the government is not liable for claims involving injuries from the construction, ownership, or maintenance of historical sites, land buildings, unimproved land, land used for recreation, and dams. Finally, the government may be liable for injuries resulting from the discharge of pollutants and road construction, cleaning, or repair.

Maine accident victims who sustain injuries on federal property may have other avenues for relief based on the FTCA. The FTCA permits injury victims to file a lawsuit in federal court based on injuries that occurred on federal property or by a federal government actor. For example, if an individual suffers injuries at one of the four national parks in Maine, they may be able to file a negligence lawsuit based on the FTCA. However, there are 13 exceptions to the waiver of immunity under the FTCA. The most frequent exception that the government will utilize is the discretionary function exception. This exception bars lawsuits against the government that are based on a government actor’s exercise or failure to perform a discretionary function or duty. Courts will examine two main factors when determining whether the government can employ this exception. First, they must decide if the government employee’s actions involved a judgment or choice. If they determine that an element of choice exists, they will then look to public policy considerations and whether the FTCA was designed to bar this type of lawsuit.

In a recent opinion, a state appellate court ruled in favor of an injury victim in a Maine premises liability lawsuit. The lawsuit originated after a woman fell and sustained injuries in a locker room after attending water therapy. According to the court’s opinion, after her water therapy session, the plaintiff needed to use a bench to change out of her swimsuit. The only bench in the locker room was unavailable because it was covered with a large floor mat, so she attempted to use a handicapped-accessible seat in a shower stall. However, she slipped and fell while walking to the stall and suffered injuries.

A little over three years later, the woman filed a premises liability lawsuit against the facility. However, the facility moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the claim should be based on medical malpractice and not premises liability. Specifically, the defendant claimed that the plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed because it was not timely under the statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits.

The statute of limitations prescribes a period that a claimant can file a lawsuit after they suffer injuries or damages. Typically, when a claimant misses the time set by the statute of limitations, the defendant can move to dismiss the claim based on timeliness. Generally, the statute of limitations begins when the injury occurs or when the plaintiff discovers the harm.

When a person slips and falls or otherwise injures themselves on another’s property, it is crucial that they understand their rights and potential remedies. There are many procedural and evidentiary rules that Maine injury victims must follow to ensure that their case is heard by a judge or jury. For example, threshold requirements include ensuring that a case complies with the statute of limitations and that proper notice is provided to all defendants. However, additional challenges may arise when the plaintiff and defendant have a landlord-tenant relationship.

Maine personal injury lawsuits require that the plaintiff prove the defendant was negligent to collect damages for their injuries. In situations where the plaintiff suffers injuries at their apartment complex or a rental unit, the responsible party is often their landlord. Maine tenants must gather all proof that establishes that their landlord was aware of the dangerous condition and that the landlord either did not rectify the hazard or directly caused the unsafe condition.

Typically, slip and fall lawsuits stemming from injuries at an apartment complex are a result of falls in a public or communal area. Public areas include areas such as playgrounds, pools, parking lots, sidewalks and stairwells. Some common examples of landlord negligence are when they cause safety risks by failing to maintain the property, if they do not have appropriate safety measures such as proper lighting in public areas, and if they do not act to correct the unlawful behavior of other tenants. In many cases, landlords will try to preempt liability by including a clause in the lease that waives their responsibility to keep or maintain common areas. In these cases, it is crucial to retain an experienced Maine premises liability lawyer to evaluate your situation.

Maine premises liability accidents can have severe and long-lasting repercussions. According to recent data collected and analyzed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), falls account for almost 29 percent of non-fatal injuries in the United States. Many times, these falls can be prevented if property owners take the appropriate steps to ensure their property is safe for visitors and guests. When a person falls due to the negligence of a property owner, the owner may be held liable for negligence.

Under Maine’s premises liability statute, property owners, lessees, and others with control of property owe a duty of care to those who lawfully enter their land. These owners must exhibit reasonable care to keep their land free of dangers. If a person is injured as a result of a defect or hazard on a floor of a business, they must establish that the property owner knew, should have known about, or caused the dangerous condition.

Maine premises liability lawsuits arise from many types of accidents; however, the most common accidents are slip and falls. Typically, a slip and fall occurs from inadequate lighting, broken or missing hand or safety rails, holes or divots in the ground, or spills. In these cases, an injured person may seek damages from the property owner. The victim may be able to recover for losses they sustained related to things such as medical expenses and pain and suffering.

As a general rule, Maine personal injury laws hold people accountable for injuries that are caused by their negligence. In many cases, the basis of a personal injury suit is the defendant’s negligent action; however, a lawsuit can also be premised on a defendant’s failure to act. This is frequently the case in Maine premises liability cases.

Under Maine premises liability law, property owners and lessees owe a duty of care to those whom they invite onto their property. However, landowners do not owe the same duty to those who enter the property without permission. Courts generally do not require a plaintiff to prove that they were formally invited onto a property before finding that the property owner owed them a duty. Instead, courts consider the surrounding circumstances when making the determination. For example, a customer who enters a business establishment will be presumed to be an invited guest, even if they do not intend to make a purchase.

An important exception to the general rule that property owners owe a duty to those whom they invite onto their land is the Maine recreational use statute. A recreational use statute is a law that specifically prohibits certain lawsuits that are based on injuries occurring while engaging in recreational activity on the defendant’s land. The idea behind recreational use statutes is that the government wants to encourage landowners to allow the general public to enjoy their land without fear of being financially responsible for any injuries occurring as a result.

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