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Estate of Smith v. Salvesen

Supreme Court of Maine

July 7, 2016

ESTATE OF LOIS W. SMITH et al.
v.
TIMOTHY SALVESEN

          Argued: December 9, 2015

         Cumberland Superior Court docket number CV-2013-388

         On the briefs and at oral argument:

          Michelle Allott, Esq., Farris Law, Gardiner, for appellants Eugene J. Smith and Estate of Lois Smith

          Elizabeth A. Germani, Esq., Germani Martemucci & Hill, Portland, for appellee Timothy Salvesen Cumberland Superior Court docket number CV-2013-388 For Clerk Reference Only

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and HJELM, JJ.

          HJELM, J.

         [¶1] In this premises liability case, Eugene J. Smith, individually and as personal representative of the Estate of Lois W. Smith, appeals from a summary judgment entered in the Superior Court (Cumberland County, Mills, J.) in favor of Timothy Salvesen on Smith's complaint for the wrongful death of his wife based on allegations of negligence. Smith argues that the court erred by (1) disregarding certain statements in his affidavit and the affidavit of his expert witness, and (2) concluding that he had not presented a prima facie case that Salvesen's alleged negligence was a proximate cause of his wife's fatal injuries. We affirm the judgment.

          I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] Viewed in the light most favorable to Eugene Smith as the nonprevailing party, the summary judgment record contains the following facts. See Brown v. Delta Tau Delta, 2015 ME 75, ¶ 2, 118 A.3d 789.

         [¶3] In October 2012, Eugene and Lois Smith traveled to Maine to attend an event at Hebron Academy, where they were being honored for their work as benefactors and trustees. The Smiths had made arrangements through the school to stay at the Maine Farmhouse, a guesthouse owned and operated by Salvesen and located in Woodstock. A member of the school's staff gave the Smiths directions and a passcode to enter the guesthouse, and told them that they would be staying on the second floor. The Smiths did not receive a room number or any other information about their accommodations, nor did they speak with Salvesen before their trip.

         [¶4] Upon arriving at the Maine Farmhouse, the Smiths let themselves in the front door and selected a room on the second floor. The Smiths were not aware that the room they chose was actually a two-floor suite with an upstairs bedroom that was connected to a downstairs living room by a private staircase. After the Smiths went out to dinner, they returned to their room and went to bed.

         [¶5] The next thing Eugene Smith remembers is being awakened around 7:00 a.m. by a loud crash and Lois Smith's scream. He ran out of the room to search for her in the upstairs hallway and then, not finding her, returned to the bedroom where, for the first time, he noticed the staircase located within the suite. He found his wife lying on a landing on the staircase and bleeding from her head. She was eventually transported to a hospital and died the next day from her injuries.

         [¶6] In September 2013, Eugene Smith filed a complaint for negligence and wrongful death, 18-A M.R.S. § 2-804 (2015), [1] which, as later amended, named Salvesen as the defendant. Smith alleged in the complaint that the guesthouse premises were unreasonably dangerous, in part because the staircase in the bedroom did not conform with applicable safety standards, and that the defects in the staircase were a proximate cause of Lois Smith's fatal injuries.

         [¶7] In October 2014, Salvesen moved for a summary judgment, see M.R. Civ. P. 56, arguing that the evidence failed to support a claim that any alleged negligence by Salvesen caused Lois Smith's fall. In his statement of material facts, Salvesen asserted that nobody knew how or from where Lois Smith fell. To support these assertions, Salvesen cited to deposition testimony from Eugene Smith, taken in October 2013, where Smith stated that at the time of the fall, he was asleep and did not "have the slightest idea" whether his wife was descending the staircase when she fell. Salvesen also cited to deposition testimony from Richard Dolby, Smith's designated expert on building code standards. Dolby inspected the staircase and found two violations of the Life Safety Code, which he determined applied to the Maine Farmhouse.[2] First, he found that when descending the staircase from the second floor, the height of the first riser was one inch less than the height of the next riser-a difference that exceeds permissible limits. Second, he found that the staircase railing fell below minimum height requirements measured from the steps, and that it was installed at ...


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