Judge Sally D. Atkins recently affirmed a ruling by the Court of Special Appeals that extended the statute of repose in a wrongful death and premises liability case brought by the family of Sean McLaughlin, a worker who died while attempting to perform HVAC service at a shopping center. McLaughlin was called to repair a HVAC unit at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Annapolis. He was on a ladder accessing the roof when he fell and sustained fatal injuries. His surviving family's claim named SVF Riva Annapolis, the shopping center owner, and Rappaport Management Corporation, the manager of the property, as defendants.
Question of Liability
The defendants are accused of failing to warn McLaughlin that the wall he was using for access did not have a roof. They denied liability for the accident claiming to not have been in possession and control of the property at the time and that these claims were barred based on expiration of a 20-year statute of repose. In addition, they claimed that the statute of repose exception cited in the claim applied only to cases involving asbestos and that McLaughlin had demonstrated negligence that led to the fatal accident.
Statute of Repose
The statute allows for immunity from civil liability for injuries or death resulting from unsafe or dangerous conditions on a property once a period of 20 years has passed. The law bars claims that are based on “improvements of real property”. This immunity applies to any potential defendants that may own or have control of the property.
Maryland's premises liability statutes allow for those injured while upon another's property to pursue compensation when caused by a failure to maintain safe conditions. The doctrine is dependent upon the “status” of the injured individual at the time the injury occurred, essentially requiring that the injured party was legally on the premises. The classifications are as follows:
- Invitee: An individual who is welcomed on the property for business interests of the owner or controller. An example would be a customer at a retail store. The owner has a duty to maintain reasonably safe conditions for invitees to avoid injury and warn them of the existence of dangerous conditions.
- Licensee: An individual who is invited to the property for purposes outside of the owner's business interests. An example would be a social guest attending a party.
- Bare Licensee: Someone who is legally upon the property; however, they are present specifically for their own business interests. The owner is responsible to a lesser extent for the safety of these individuals.
- Trespasser: Someone who has entered the property without permission. The owner may only be deemed liable for injuries that were the result of intentional actions.
If the actions or behavior of an injured party are found to have “contributed” to the harm incurred, they have demonstrated contributory negligence. When a defendant proves that the plaintiff's negligent action was partially a causal factor in the incident, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages. Maryland is one of only five U.S. jurisdictions that adhere to this doctrine.
Most states allocate the amounts of negligence proportionally among all parties and reduce any award for damages by the (percentage) amount that the plaintiff contributed to the harm. In Maryland, if the plaintiff is found to have exhibited any degree of negligence in the accident, the entire claim is barred.