On April 6, 2015, a fire started along a common area of mulch owned by the Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 (“Steamfitters”), which eventually spread, causing damage to a neighboring property owned by Gordon Contractors, Inc. (“Gordon”) and Falco Industries, Inc. (“Falco”). This area was commonly used by Steamfitters’ apprentices to congregate before their training classes. An investigation into the cause of the fire revealed hundreds of cigarette butts discarded in the mulch.
After filing suit, Gordon and Falco proceeded on the theory that Steamfitters, as the property owner, failed to use reasonable care to prevent the foreseeable risk of fire spreading to nearby properties. Testimony established that Steamfitters’ business designee, who was responsible for maintenance of the property, was aware that the apprentices frequently smoked near this common area and had cleaned trash along the fence two or three times prior to the fire. It was undisputed that Steamfitters did not issue any smoking policies, and there were no signs prohibiting smoking on the property. However, Steamfitters argued that it had no common law duty to the neighboring properties.
Steamfitters moved for judgment at the end of the Plaintiffs’ case-in chief, at the conclusion of the defense’s case, and at the end of Plaintiffs’ rebuttal, with the trial judge denying each motion. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiffs, Steamfitters filed a timely appeal.
The Court of Special Appeals (“COSA”) acknowledged that no Maryland case had previously addressed this specific issue – “a fire caused by a condition that is not inherently dangerous, but rather considered to be normal, absent extenuating circumstances.” Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Inc. Exch., 241 Md. App. 94, 116 (2019). However, although the court had no case with a similar set of facts to rely upon, the COSA recognized that a property owner owes a common law duty of reasonable care, so as to avoid harm to the owners and occupants of the neighboring property. The circuit court’s judgment was affirmed by the COSA, and Steamfitters petitioned for writ of certiorari.
In its brief to the Court of Appeals, Steamfitters argued that COSA erroneously found a duty based on foreseeability alone, never truly defined said duty, and with its decision, expanded premises liability further than anywhere else in the country.
However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the COSA’s decision, reasoning that for the last 80 years, the ownership and maintenance of property come with a duty to use reasonable care so as to not harm neighboring property owners. This was not exclusively dependent on any one type of activity, but rather after viewing the totality of the circumstances, there existed a hazardous condition, and the property owner was on notice of said condition. The Court acknowledged mulch itself is not a dangerous condition, but went on to state that an otherwise normal condition can become dangerous when one adds human activity. The Court continued, declaring “it is certainly a foreseeable consequence of allowing or enabling the constant littering or disposal of cigarettes along a common boundary between commercial properties.” , No. 40, 2020 Md. LEXIS 347 (July 27, 2020).
While this case was decided on a narrow set of facts, the Court’s decision emphasizes the overarching and long-standing duties that property owners owe to neighbors. One cannot escape a duty to use reasonable care simply by ignoring the care and maintenance of property boundaries. As the Court of Appeals quoted at the beginning of its opinion, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” – Smokey the Bear.
-Kelsey Lear, Law Clerk