Articles Posted in Premise Liability

Safety is paramount when it comes to the places we live and frequent daily. Unfortunately, structural support failures can lead to catastrophic accidents that disrupt lives and cause immense harm.

A recent incident in Augusta serves as a stark reminder of the potential dangers posed by structural support failures. According to a report by the Portland Press Herald, a porch on Washington Street collapsed, leading to the displacement of ten individuals. The incident emphasizes the critical need to ensure the stability and safety of structures to prevent such accidents from occurring.

Common Causes of Structural Support Failures

Anyone who has watched a hockey game in person is probably aware of the ubiquitous Zamboni ice resurfacing machine. The Zamboni is a vehicle similar to a commercial or industrial floor cleaner, which smooths the ice surface to make it appropriate for a professional hockey game. The standard Zamboni, which has been used for decades, runs on an internal combustion engine and emits known carcinogens in its exhaust. When used in a semi-enclosed space over extended periods of time, Zambonis may present a health risk to anyone regularly present while the machines are in use. Two athletic trainers for the Philadelphia Flyers professional hockey team have filed a lawsuit against the team and facilities, alleging they have developed health problems as a result of the defendants’ unsafe use of Zambonis.

According to the facts discussed in a local news report describing the recently filed case, the two plaintiffs have been employed by the team for over 15 years, and each was repeatedly exposed to the Zamboni machines extensively while the teams were practicing. The plaintiffs’ claims allege that each of the men developed essential thrombocythemia, which is a rare blood disorder that may be linked to the carcinogens present in the Zamboni exhaust. One of the plaintiffs has also developed a type of blood cancer that may be linked to the chemicals The plaintiffs further allege that the defendants knew or should have known of the carcinogenic risk from using the Zambonis as they did. Furthermore, the plaintiffs noted that there are effective alternatives to a Zamboni that do not utilize an internal combustion engine that emits carcinogens, and such machinery could have should have been used instead of the Zambonis.

Although the case has only recently been filed and the defendants have responded that the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit, the plaintiffs may be entitled to a significant settlement or judgment if they can demonstrate that the defendants knew of the dangers to the plaintiffs, kept them in the dark about it, and repeatedly allowed them to be exposed to the dangerous chemicals. When exposure to dangerous chemicals results in permanent health problems, the damages awarded can be substantial.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an opinion involving a negligent maintenance and operation claim against the University of Maine. The plaintiff suffered injuries after she slipped and fell on a patch of untreated ice on a campus parking lot. In response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the University moved for summary judgment asserting immunity under the Maine Tort Claims Act (MTCA). Specifically, they argued that the parking lot fell within an exception of the MTCA.

Generally, under the MTCA, governmental entities are immune from civil tort lawsuits involving the recovery of damages. Unlike other states, the MTCA recognizes an “exception-to-immunity approach rather than an exception-to-liability approach.” One such exception provides that governmental entities are liable for negligent acts or omissions in the “construction, operation or maintenance” of any buildings or the “appurtenances to any public buildings.”

While the MTCA does not explicitly define “appurtenance,” the Court considers appurtenance as an “object or thing that belongs or is attached to a public building.” As such, to be an appurtenance, the object at issue must be (1) physically annexed to the property, (2) adapted to the property and (3) intended to be irremovable from the property.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, the State’s highest court, recently issued a decision on the liability of landlords in Maine premises liability cases. The issue before the court was whether reserving access to the premises for inspections and repairs created a dispute about whether the landlords had exclusive control over the premises.

In that case, a woman was visiting her daughter and son-in-law at a house they were renting. She was going down the stairs in the house and fell off the landing at the bottom of the stairs. The landing step was eleven inches tall, which was taller than the rest of the stairs on the staircase, and did not comply with the applicable building codes. The woman filed a premises liability lawsuit against the landlords alleging that they were liable for the injuries she suffered due to the fall.

Under Maine premises liability law, a landlord is liable for injuries caused by a dangerous condition on property under a tenant’s exclusive control if the landlord: 1) fails to disclose to the tenant the existence of a latent defect that a landlord knows or should have known existed and which the tenant did not know of and should not have reasonably discovered; 2) gratuitously undertakes to make repairs and negligently completes the repairs; or 3) expressly agrees to maintain the premises in good repair. A landlord is liable for injuries to the tenant, as well as the tenant’s guests and others on the premises with the tenant’s consent. Exclusive control generally refers to the power over the premises that a landlord reserves according to the terms of the lease.

Everyone has seen a yellow wet floor sign warning you that the area you’re walking into may be slippery. When you slip and fall or are injured in Maine on another party’s property, however, you may have a premises liability claim if the individual failed to provide take the necessary steps to ensure the area was reasonably safe.

As an example, in a recent state Supreme Court decision, the court addressed what duty, if any, is owed by a hospital to an individual who is on its premises solely to visit one of its patients. The plaintiff was visiting his hospitalized wife when he slipped and fell on ice in the hospital’s parking lot. The plaintiff sued the hospital, alleging inadequate snow and ice removal in the parking lot caused him to fall and that the hospital breached the duty of care it owed to him. The hospital was granted summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the court sided with the plaintiff and reversed the lower court’s summary judgment decision. The court concluded that the plaintiff was an invitee, so the hospital owed him a duty to keep the premises and grounds in reasonably safe condition. Invitees, who are owed the highest duty of care in premises liability claims, can be established in two ways: either by showing that they were on the premises “for a purpose connected with the business conducted on the land,” or that “it can be reasonably be said that the visit may confer a business, commercial, monetary, or other tangible benefit to the landowner.” Because the plaintiff was on hospital grounds to visit his wife, which was closely connected to the hospital’s business, he satisfied the first element and established himself as an invitee.

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.

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