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Commercial Landowners May Owe Neighbors a Duty of Care

June 28, 2019 By Lauren N. Rutkowski

In a claim for negligence, the existence of a legal duty is a question of law for a judge to decide. The existence of such a duty is dependent on the specific facts and circumstances of each claim. Maryland Court of Appeals recently held that a duty exists between commercial property owners when using their property in a common and not inherently dangerous manner. In this situation, the commercial property owner must still exercise reasonable care to ensure that a practice or pattern of behavior on the property does not cause injury to other neighbors so long as the property owner knew or should have known that the practice or pattern of behavior may cause a dangerous condition.

            In the consolidated cases Steam Fitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Insurance Exchange, et al. and Steam Fitters Local Union No. 602 v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, et al. the Court of Appeals ruled that Defendant/Appellant Steamfitters owed a duty of care to their commercial neighbors to ensure that Plaintiffs/Appellees’ property did not catch fire from unknown third parties discarding their cigarette butts on Steamfitters’ property. Multiple fire inspectors testified as experts and opined as to the origin of the fire which caused damage to the commercial properties surrounding Steamfitters. The Plaintiffs/Appellees argued that the fire was started by a cigarette butt which was discarded into Steamfitters’ mulched portion of their property on a windy day. The cigarette was believed to have been discarded by an unknown third-party who was not an employee or agent and was otherwise completely unknown to Steamfitters. Steamfitters argued that commercial landowners did not owe commercial neighbors a duty of care to prevent third parties, with whom they have no special relationship or vicarious responsibility, from discarding cigarettes on their property. Steamfitters argued this was especially true when their only notice of smoking activities on their property was based on an employee’s observation of cigarette butts in the mulch.

            When determining if a duty exists the following factors are considered: (1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; (2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff will suffer injury; (3) the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; (4) the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (5) the policy of preventing future harm; (6) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and (7) the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.

            Maryland has not previously dealt with the specific issue of a property owner’s duty to protect neighbors from fire related damages caused by a condition like cigarette butts, which is generally considered to be normal and not inherently dangerous. Maryland courts have previously held that property owners owe their neighbors a common law duty to avoid engaging in activities on their property which would injure their neighbors’ properties. This is especially true if the property owner is aware or should be aware that the activity he is engaging in poses a danger to the premises of others outside of his property. A property owner breaches this duty when he fails to exercise reasonable care to make the condition or activity reasonably safe by removing the danger or employing other adequate safeguards to avoid any foreseeable damages.

            In the present case, facts were elicited at trial which demonstrated that Steamfitters’ agents and employees were aware that cigarette butts were being disposed of on their property in the mulched area. Steamfitters was unaware, however, of the individuals who were discarding these cigarette butts on their property and contended no special relationship existed between them and the third-party individuals. Further, Steamfitters’ employees admitted at trial that they were aware that cigarette butts posed a potential fire hazard. The court noted there was sufficient evidence to establish that Steamfitters knew of the cigarette butts that were being disposed of on their property and that this practice could cause a fire to start. The court also noted this evidence was sufficient to establish a duty owed by Steamfitters to their neighbors to prevent this dangerous condition. As such, there was enough evidence to allow the jury to decide if Steamfitters breached the duty of care owed to their commercial neighbors.

            The take-away from this case is that property owners may be on the hook for the actions of unknown third-parties regardless of the existence of any special relationship between the two. Further, Maryland courts will rely heavily on statutes and previous case law to determine if a duty is owed to potential plaintiffs before they may be willing to grant a motion for summary judgment for a landowner claiming no duty was owed based upon a third-party’s actions.