Property owners owe a duty to guests to ensure they are not confronted with unreasonable risks and hazards that may jeopardize their safety. Depending on the role of the guest (i.e., a social visitor, a business invitee or a trespasser), the duty of care owed by the property owner will vary.
Recently, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court – the highest in the state – handed down a ruling on a premises liability lawsuit that underscores the importance of expert witness testimony in some of these cases.
The case of Estate of Smith v. Salvesen is a tragic one. Plaintiff and his wife were in town as guests at a reception held at a local college for which they were benefactors. The pair stayed at a local inn. They were told their suite was on the second floor, but they did not realize it was actually a two-story suit, equipped with stairs in the bedroom that led to the lower level.
They attended a dinner and then returned to their room that night.
Early that next morning, the husband awoke to a crash and an agonizing scream. He ran out of the room to the hallway. He saw nothing there. He then raced back into the room and realized that his wife was at the bottom of a stairway that he hadn’t realized was there until that moment. Presumably, his wife did not know it was there either. She suffered a severe head injury and died the following day after being hospitalized.
Plaintiff filed a Maine wrongful death lawsuit against the property owner, arguing the premises was unreasonably dangerous because the bedroom didn’t conform with certain applicable safety standards and the defective staircase was the cause of his wife’s fatal fall.
After depositions were taken, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff failed to prove negligence. Specifically, he had not presented evidence to show how or from where decedent had fallen. After all, plaintiff had been sleeping and hadn’t seen the fall.
Plaintiff countered that the crash he heard was clearly his wife falling. He also noted that when going down the stairs, the height of the risers were variable differences. Further, the railing was below the minimum height requirement, so his wife would not have been able to catch her fall. It had also been installed at an improper angle.
However, plaintiff’s expert witness, who testified to these defects, conceded he did not know whether decedent had fallen from the top of the stairway or whether the height violations had anything whatsoever to do with her fall. The expert witness did later say the height differential should be considered a critical factor, but that was only in an affidavit submitted after his deposition – and it countered what he’d said in his deposition.
Trial court sided with defendant, finding plaintiff’s assumption that the loud crash he heard meant that she had fallen from the top of the stairs to be insufficient to prove causation in this case. Further, the affidavit submitted by the expert witness following his deposition was conflicting and thus would not be considered by the court.
Plaintiff appealed. He argued this was new expert witness testimony.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial court’s reasoning.
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.
Estate of Smith v. Salvesen , July 7, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court