Update – Property Owner’s Defense Goes up in Smoke in Careless Smoking Case

Smoke on black background

This case establishes that a defendant can be held liable for a careless smoking fire even if the defendant does not have a duty to control the actions of third parties and is not vicariously liable for the third party’s actions.

September 21, 2020
Michael J. Ciamaichelo - The Subrogation Strategist

Property owners owe a duty of reasonable care to avoid causing harm to neighboring properties. In Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Ins. Exch., 2020 Md. LEXIS 347 (July 27, 2020) (Steamfitters Local), a matter originally discussed in a June 2019 blog post, the Court of Appeals of Maryland affirmed that, where the property owner knows or should have known that people are habitually discarding hundreds of cigarette butts into a mulch bed along the boundary of the neighboring property, the property owner owes a duty to its neighbors to prevent the risk of fire.

As discussed in Steamfitters Local, a fire originated in a strip of mulch at property owned by the Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 (Union) and caused damage to neighboring properties. The fire occurred when an unknown person discarded a cigarette butt into the mulch. Following the fire, investigators found hundreds of cigarette butts in the mulch where the fire originated. A representative for the Union acknowledged that there were more butts in the mulch “than there should have been” and that, “[i]n the right situation,” a carelessly discarded cigarette could cause a fire. The Union, however, had no rules or signs to prohibit or regulate smoking at the property, where apprentices would often gather prior to class. The insurance companies for the damaged neighbors filed subrogation actions alleging that the Union, as the property owner, failed to use reasonable care to prevent a foreseeable fire. A jury found in favor of the subrogating insurers and the defendants appealed.

Mr. Ciamaichelo may be contacted at ciamaichelom@whiteandwilliams.com



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