Maryland Court of Appeals Holds Property Owner Accountable For Fire Spread Caused By Cigarette Butts in Mulch Bed

In July 2017,  Stutman Law attorney Tom Marsh was part of a team that won a jury verdict against Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 (“Steamfitters”) following a multi-property fire in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  The fire started in a mulch bed outside Steamfitters’ union hall, where Steamfitters knew its apprentices were congregating and smoking cigarettes for long periods prior to attending training classes at the union hall.  The fire ignited other combustible materials nearby, then spread and damaged a number of neighboring properties.  Several property owners and their insurers sued Steamfitters for negligence, arguing that Steamfitters failed to use reasonable care to prevent the foreseeable risk of fire posed by people discarding cigarettes in the mulch.  The plaintiffs presented evidence that hundreds of cigarette butts were recovered from the mulch after the fire.  In its defense, Steamfitters argued that it had not used its property for any inherently dangerous activity and it had no duty to protect the interests of its neighbors.

After a jury determined that Steamfitters was negligent and liable for the plaintiffs’ damages, Steamfitters filed an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.  The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the jury verdict, holding that Steamfitters had notice that a dangerous condition was occurring on its property, and it was within the province of the jury to determine to determine whether Steamfitters had breached that duty.  Steamfitters then filed an appeal with Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.  On July 27, 2020, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the rulings of the lower courts.  The Court of Appeals specifically held that as a matter of first impression, Steamfitters had a duty to use its property in a manner that did not constitute an unreasonable risk of the spread of fire to neighboring properties.  The Court explained that normal activities or conditions can become dangerous when human activity is “added into the mix.”  In this case, the mulch bed itself was not inherently dangerous, however a dangerous condition was created by the careless discarding of cigarettes into the mulch. With the Maryland Court of Appeals’ Opinion, Steamfitters’ liability stands and Stutman Law has helped favorably shape Maryland’s negligence law going forward.

To read the Maryland Court of Appeals’ Opinion in Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Ins. Exchange, et al, click here.