Estate of Smith v. Salvesen – Unsafe Stairway

Stairways are an inherently dangerous feature of any structure. That’s why building codes are very specific about the standards required, which may vary depending on the type of structure and it’s function. It’s estimated tens of thousands of people in North America die as a result of stairway falls every year.stairs6

Although many stairway falls are caused by loss of balance, often due to neglecting to use the handrails, poor construction of stairways can cause a person to fall as well. While building codes for stairways are rigorous, that wasn’t always the case. In a lot of older buildings, stairways may not have been built according to court. Additionally, stairways require regular and adequate maintenance to ensure they are safe.

When a stairway does not meet an applicable building code, a personal injury lawyer may be able to assert negligence pro se, or a breach of duty just based on the violation of law. But even in cases where building codes are technically met, property owners have a duty to make sure that the property is reasonably safe for lawful guests. 

In the case of Estate of Smith v. Salvesen, recently before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the issue of causal connection between the building code violations and the cause of plaintiff’s fall.

The big issue here was what the court saw as a lack of adequate expert testimony to lay the foundation for an assertion of proximate cause.

Plaintiff and his wife were planning to attend an event for a small college preparatory boarding school, for which they had been benefactors and trustees. The couple made arrangements to stay at the Maine Farmhouse, which was a guest house owned and operated by defendant. A member of the school district provided the pass code to enter the guesthouse and told the couple they would be staying on the second floor. They received no room number or other information and they didn’t speak to the owner before the trip.

The couple arrived, let themselves in and chose a two-floor suite that was connected to one of the downstairs living rooms by a private stairway. Plaintiff said the couple was not aware of this stairway when the entered the room, even as they got settled and put their things away before preparing to go to dinner.

They left, went to dinner, returned and went to bed. The next thing plaintiff recalls was hearing a huge crash followed by his wife’s scream around 7 a.m. He ran out into the hallway and didn’t see her. He went back into the room and noticed there for the first time the staircase in the bedroom. He saw his wife lying on a landing of the staircase, bleeding from the head. She was taken to a hospital and died the following day of traumatic brain injury.

Her husband filed a complaint for damages against the property owner, asserting in his premises liability lawsuit that the property was unreasonably dangerous. The bedroom didn’t conform with applicable safety standards and the defective stairway proximately caused his wife’s injuries.

After depositions but prior to trial, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing the evidence failed to support a claim of negligence because no one knew how or from where decedent had fallen.

Plaintiff presented evidence to show the stairway did not meet applicable building codes (the risers were uneven and the handrail was too low). Further, he argued his wife had fallen from the top of the stairs, not realizing it was even there and also noting the loud crash he heard before he found her.

The court granted summary judgment for defense, finding the testimony regarding the risers was conjecture because the witness stated, “It should be considered.” Further, it wasn’t properly disclosed, the court determined.

Plaintiff appealed, arguing the court erred in not allowing his expert witness testimony to be considered. He argued nothing in the witness’s new statement contradicted his earlier statements.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, however, affirmed, finding the expert witness’s statement in fact did contradict an earlier comment he made in which he said he wasn’t sure the riser defect contributed to the fall.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Estate of Smith v. Salvesen, July 7, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

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