Property owners owe a duty of reasonable care to avoid causing harm to neighboring properties. When a property owner knows or should know about a condition that poses a risk of danger to neighboring properties, the property owner must exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently held that, where hundreds of discarded cigarette butts had accumulated in a bed of mulch over an extended period of time prior to the fire at issue, the owner of the property with the mulch beds owed a duty of care to its neighbors to prevent a foreseeable fire.
In Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 2019 Md. App. LEXIS 430 (May 30, 2019), 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, if not thousands of cigarettes” 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 against the Union.