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Be Careful Where You Throw Your Cigarette Butts

The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict, finding Steamfitters Local Union 602 (Steamfitters) liable for the damages in excess of $1.2 million caused to its next door neighbor for a fire that spread along a mulched strip of common area running to the neighbor’s property. The fire started because people on Steamfitters’ property discarded cigarette butts into the mulch. The Court held that Steamfitters had a common law duty to use reasonable care, and it was up to the jury to determine whether Steamfitters had breached its duty. Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Insurance Exchange, et al.; Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, et al., 469 Md. 704 (2020).

Steamfitters owns and maintains a union hall in Capitol Heights, Maryland, where there is an apprentice school. Steamfitters’ apprentices regularly congregated for hours at a time outside of the union hall before their evening training classes. On April 6, 2015, a fire caused considerable damage to the neighbor’s property. The neighbor claimed that the fire started on Steamfitters’ property after a lit cigarette was discarded in the mulched area on Steamfitters’ side of a fence separating the properties, and that a fire was a foreseeable risk of this action. Upon investigation, hundreds, if not thousands, of cigarette butts were found in the mulch.

The neighbor and its insurers (collectively, the Plaintiffs) brought a lawsuit in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County against Steamfitters, alleging negligence, and a jury found for the plaintiffs. Steamfitters appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed the judgment of the circuit court in a split decision. Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Ins. Exch., 241 Md. App. 94 (2019). The Court of Appeals then granted a writ of certiorari.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the jury’s verdict. The Court stated that in a negligence action, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving:

  1. The defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury;
  2. The defendant breached that duty;
  3. The plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss; and
  4. The loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant’s breach of that duty.

Although Steamfitters contended that it owed no duty to its neighbor, the Court noted that for at least 80 years, it has recognized that ownership, operation, and maintenance of property is accompanied by a common law duty to use reasonable care not to cause harm to neighboring property owners. The Court stated, “A duty may arise when, viewing the totality of the circumstances, there exists a dangerous or hazardous condition on the property and the property owner was on notice of the dangerous or hazardous condition.” The Court found that a duty arose in Steamfitters, because an otherwise normal condition — the placement of mulch — “became dangerous by virtue of the practice of persons tossing cigarette butts into the mulch.” The Court was satisfied that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that Steamfitters had actual or constructive knowledge that hundreds of cigarette butts had been discarded in the mulched common area along the property line, and this created a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of fire spreading to the neighboring properties.

For questions, contact Edward J. Levin.

 

Ed Levin
410-576-1900 • elevin@gfrlaw.com

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Date

11.13.20

Type

Publications

Authors

Levin, Edward J.

Teams

Real Estate