You hear lawyers use the term “strict liability” when discussing certain types of injury to others or damage to property. It may never affect your life, but we all know that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Strict liability means that if you do something that causes damage to property or injury to a person – even if you took precautions – you may still be required to compensate the victim.
Maryland is among the majority of states that apply strict liability to certain situations. In this state, the concept extends to dog bites – even if the owner did not intend that Rover would bite anyone and did not anticipate that the dog might misperceive the victim’s intent or might remember the victim was hostile to him in the past.
Strict liability extends to inanimate objects that cause harm, such as a parked car if the emergency brake slips and the car rolls into something, or the old law school example of a privately owned dam, where the owner is liable for damage even if he did not intend that his dam would be breached and the resulting flood would damage someone’s property.
The Maryland Department of the Environment website, https://mde.maryland.gov/programs/water/damsafety/pages/owner_liability.aspx, cites dam liability history to an 1868 case in England, where a privately owned dam collapsed and damaged downstream property.
The dam case has been cited in American court decisions where someone is injured or had property damaged. In the English case, the court said, “[a] person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril.”
Whether the escape is water out of a dam, a dog leaping a fence to attack a passerby, or back yard fireworks that misfire and injure a neighbor, the owner of the dam, dog or land may be liable.
In cases where strict liability for accidents or injuries does not apply, negligence may. Suppose you have an old wooden porch. The porch is rotting, but you’ll get around to fixing it sometime. Meanwhile, you have guests arriving. One overweight guest steps onto the porch, the floor collapses and the guest’s leg is injured as he falls.
Are you liable to compensate the guest for his injury? Probably. If the guest sues you, he is likely to argue that he was there by your invitation and you had a duty to make sure the property you invited him onto was reasonably safe. Instead, you failed to take any measures such as fixing the rotten floor or posting a sign to warn visitors not to step onto the porch.
You may counter-argue that the floor was safe for people of average weight. But if you knew that one of the guests was heavier than average, a court or jury may find that you had a duty to make entry safe for him, and you negligently failed to fix the porch or to advise him to use another entrance.
Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.