It is a common misconception that real estate owners are responsible anytime someone gets injured on their property. Property owners, like anyone else, are liable only when they are negligent.
To be negligent means to fail to do something that an ordinary, careful person would do in the same situation. This means that a property owner (or a tenant or resident) is responsible for keeping their property in relatively good, safe condition.
Under Maine law, this boils down to three questions: Who was injured? What caused the injury? And did the property owner do anything to prevent it from happening?
First, when determining landowner liability in Maine, there are two types of people: those who are invited to be on someone’s property and those who aren’t.
When a guest or a customer (or a mail carrier, for that matter) enters someone’s property, they have a reasonable expectation of not getting injured. This means that the land needs to be maintained in a safe condition. (However, an exception exists when someone is injured while using someone’s land for outdoor recreation, so long as the landowner isn’t charging money. This protects people who allow others to use their land to camp, hunt, canoe, or even come over and play volleyball.)
On the other hand, anyone who isn’t invited or allowed to be on someone else’s property is considered a trespasser. In Maine, if you get injured while you are trespassing, you generally cannot hold the landowner liable.
There is one big exception to this trespasser rule: attractive nuisances.
An attractive nuisance is something that is especially dangerous that tends to attract nearby children. The most common examples are backyard swimming pools and construction sites.
If a child is injured when playing in an attractive nuisance, the landowner is responsible so long as there was reason to know that children were likely to be nearby, the injury was relatively preventable (such as by putting up a fence or fixing something dangerous), and the owner still failed to do anything about it beforehand.
(2) What caused the injury?
Even to guests or customers, a property owner does not guarantee absolute safety. However, an owner does owe everyone a duty to be reasonably safe. That means that an owner must guard against all foreseeable dangers. Stairwells need handrails. Lightbulbs need to be replaced. Smoke detectors need to work.
If something on the floor caused the injured person to trip and fall, the owner is liable so long as he or she (a) caused the foreign substance to be on the floor, or (b) knew that it was on the floor, or (c) should have known it was on the floor by the time the injury occurred. So a grocery store most likely isn’t responsible if you slip on the falling snow in the parking lot, but it may be responsible if in two days they still haven’t done anything about it and it hardens into a sheet of ice.
(3) Did the property owner do anything to prevent the injury?
Generally, a landowner is not liable for obvious hazards that anyone paying attention would notice. However, if it is likely that a visitor would not discover the problem, or be distracted when encountering it, or have no way to avoid the danger, then the owner still has a duty to warn people about it, and possibly even to fix it. For instance, an aisle floor may be obviously wet, but a store should still clean it up if it expects that customers would be looking at other things or have their arms full with bundles that obstruct their vision.
Andy Pierce represents people and their families who have been injured by the dangerous negligence and harms created by others. If you would like to speak to Andy, please contact Drummond & Drummond for a free, no-risk consultation.