Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Maryland Courts Determine that Features Inside Leased Property are in the Exclusive Control of the Lessee

 Smith v. Bay Front, LLC, No. 1272, 2021 Md. App. LEXIS 504 (Spec. App. June 15, 2021).

In a recent case decided by the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, it was held that a tenant cannot recover for damages in premises liability cases using the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor when the owner had no notice or control of any danger regarding a feature inside the tenant’s house.

            In 2018, Ms. Anita Smith was walking down an interior staircase in her leased property when the stairs collapsed beneath her causing injury. Ms. Smith sued Bay Front, the owners of the property, for negligence and argued that res ipsa loquitor should apply. The circuit court held that there was no evidence that Bay Front knew or should have known of any defects in the staircase. As a result, the circuit court granted Bay Front’s motion for summary judgement.

            This Court reviewed and affirmed the circuit court’s judgment. First, the Court decided that Ms. Smith was only an invitee of the property when she occupied common areas. However, because the staircase in question was inside the home that Ms. Smith was leasing, it could not be considered a common area. Furthermore, a landlord is not liable for any injuries sustained by the tenant or their guests from defects inside the leased property that manifests after the tenant is in possession of the property. Therefore, Ms. Smith must prove that there was constructive or actual notice of the defect to show negligence. However, the Court states that, even in Ms. Smith’s own deposition, she testified that she never mentioned any issues or defects regarding the staircase which means Bay Front would not have had any notice regarding the condition of the staircase and the danger it posed.

Ms. Smith argues the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor should apply. However, to prove res ipsa loquitor, Ms. Smith had to show that the staircase was in the exclusive control of Bay Front. In this case, the staircase was inside of Ms. Smith’s leased property and was only used by Ms. Smith and her family. There was no way for Bay Front to observe the staircase and determine its condition without being notified by Ms. Smith. Therefore, the interior staircase was in the exclusive possession of Ms. Smith and does not satisfy res ipsa loquitor.

The Court determined that because Ms. Smith had exclusive control over the staircase and could not show that Bay Front had any actual or constructive knowledge about any defects to the staircase, the circuit court’s decision to grant the motion for summary judgment for Bay Front was correct.   

-Jocelyn Wang, Law Clerk

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