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Smith v. Salvesen

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

January 23, 2015

EUGENE J. SMITH, Individually and as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF LOIS W, SMITH, Plaintiff
v.
TIMOTHY SALVESEN, d/b/a THE MAINE HOUSES, Defendant

ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Nancy Mills, Justice.

Before the court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment. In this case, Lois Smith fell and sustained fatal injuries while staying at the Maine Farmhouse, a guesthouse owned by defendant Timothy Salvesen. Plaintiff argues Lois Smith's fall was caused by the negligent design of a staircase in the bedroom the Smiths occupied. In the complaint, plaintiff alleges: count I: negligence; and count II: wrongful death. Defendant argues the evidence is insufficient as a matter of law to support a finding of proximate cause for Lois Smith's harm. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

FACTS

During the weekend of October 6, 2012, Eugene and Lois Smith were being honored at Hebron Academy for their work and generosity in support of the school. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 5.)[1] Prior to their trip, the Smiths made arrangements through Hebron Academy to stay at the Maine Farmhouse. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 6.) The Smiths were given a code to enter the house and told that they would be staying on the second floor, but they were not given a specific room number. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 6.) They had no contact with anyone representing the Maine Farmhouse at any time about where they would stay or about any potential hazards in the house.[2] (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 7.)

On Friday October 5, 2012, the Smiths arrived at the Maine Farmhouse, entered the hall, walked up the hall steps, and chose bedroom 5 as their room. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶¶ 8-9.) When they went to sleep that night, the Smiths were unaware that there was a private staircase inside their bedroom, which was actually a two-level suite. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 9.) After going to bed, the next thing plaintiff remembers is being awakened by a loud crashing noise and his wife's scream. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 11.) When plaintiff awakened it was approximately 7:00 a.m. on the morning of October 6 and not completely dark. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 17.)

When he heard the scream, plaintiff jumped out of bed to look for his wife. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 12.) After searching the bathroom and the hall stairs without success, plaintiff discovered the additional staircase inside the bedroom.[3] (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 12.) He switched on the light and discovered his wife lying on a platform at the bottom of the first portion of the stairs. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 12.) His wife was bleeding from her head. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶ 14.) Lois Smith was taken to Central Maine Medical Center, where she died from her injuries on October 7, 2012. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶¶ 14-15.)

Plaintiff's expert, Richard Dolby, asserts that the Life Safety Code applies to the Maine Farmhouse. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶21-22.) After investigating the construction of the stairs, Mr. Dolby identified what he considers several defects, including riser height inconsistency and improper railing height. (PL's Add. S.M.F. ¶¶ 21-30, 32.) Plaintiff argues that the trier of fact can draw a reasonable inference that these defects caused Lois Smith to fall down the stairs.[4]

Lois Smith was 84 years old at the time of the fall. (Def.'s Supp. S.M.F. ¶ 2.) She had multiple medical conditions and complications from diabetes, including "persistent and worsening" visual impairment caused by proliferative diabetic retinopathy. (Def.'s Supp. S.M.F. ¶¶ 2-3.) She had an especially difficult time seeing at night, at least for the purposes of driving. (Def.'s Supp. S.M.F. ¶ 4, as qualified by PL's Opp. S.M.F. ¶ 4.)

Lois Smith also suffered from pain, numbness, and tingling in her feet and legs as a result of peripheral neuropathy. (Def.'s Supp. S.M.F. ¶ 5.) According to defendant's expert witness, Lois Smith was at a high risk of falling based on her pre-existing medical conditions.[5] (Def.'s Supp. S.M.F. ¶ 7.)

DISCUSSION

1. Standard of Review

"Summary judgment is appropriate if the record reflects that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Dussault v. RRE Coach Lantern Holdings, LLC, 2014 ME 8, ¶ 12, 86 A.3d 52 (quoting F.R. Carroll, Inc. v. TD Bank, N.A., 2010 ME 115, ¶ 8, 8 A.3d 646). "A material fact is one that can affect the outcome of the case, and there is a genuine issue when there is sufficient evidence for a fact-finder to choose between competing versions of the fact." Mcllroy v. Gibson's Apple Orchard, 2012 ME 59, ¶ 7, 43 A.3d 948 (quoting N. E. Ins. Co. v. Young, 2011 ME 89, 17, 26 A.3d 794). "Even when one party's version of the facts appears more credible and persuasive to the court, any genuine factual dispute must be resolved through fact-finding, regardless of the nonmoving party's likelihood of success." Lewis v. Concord Gen. Mut. Ins. Co., 2014 ME 34, ¶ 10, 87 A.3d 732. If facts are undisputed but nevertheless capable of supporting conflicting, plausible inferences, "the choice between those inferences is not for the court on summary judgment." Id.

2. Premises Liability

The elements of a negligence claim are "(1) duty, (2) breach of that duty, (3) causation, and (4) harm to the plaintiff." Durham v. HTH Corp., 2005 ME 53, ¶ 8, 870 A.2d 577. In premises liability "slip and fall" negligence cases, "a business owner owes a 'positive duty of exercising reasonable care in providing reasonably safe premises . . . when it knows or should have known of a risk to customers on its premises.'" Id. (quoting Budzko v. One City Ctr. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 2001 ME 37, ¶ 11, 767 A.2d 310). Proximate cause is defined as "an action occurring in a natural and continuous sequence, uninterrupted by an intervening cause, that produces an injury that would not have occurred but for the action." Cyr v. Adamar Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 2000 ME 110, ¶ 6, 752 A.2d 603. To demonstrate proximate causation, plaintiff must show "some reasonable connection between the act or omission of [defendant] and the damage which [plaintiff] has suffered." Addy v. Tenkins, 2009 ME 46, ¶ 12, 969 A.2d 935. "A defendant is entitled to a summary judgment if there is so little evidence tending ...


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