On August 11, 2011, the Maine Supreme Court decided a case in which an employee fell and was injured in a parking lot at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston where she worked.  Probably because she was an employee and was barred by Workers’ Compensation immunity from suing her employer, she sued the plowing contractor, RC & Sons Paving, Inc.  The court affirmed a Superior Court Decision throwing the case out of the court.  Marilyn R. Davis v. R C & Sons Paving, Inc., 2011 ME 88 (http://www.courts.state.me.us/court_info/opinions/2011%20documents/11me88da.pdf).

One of the basis concepts of negligence law is that the person sued must owe a “legal duty” to the injured person.  The concept of duty is one of the ways the law limits who can be sued.  A duty is an obligation the law recognizes which requires a person to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another person.  So, for example, generally the owner of land who invites others on his land has a duty to maintain the area in a reasonably safe manner.  However, the owner here, the injured person’s employer, could not be sued because of workers’ compensation immunity.  Generally, employees are given the right to workers’ compensation benefits if injured, but lose the right to sue their employer in court for personal injuries.

In this case, the injured person, Ms. Davis, tried to get around this by suing the plow contractor.  The court would not have it.  They found that the plowing contractor did not owe Ms. Davis a legal duty to safely maintain the premises.

Interestingly, the court described an exception.  If the contractor created an unsafe condition while plowing, then it could be held liable for that condition.  The court found that that exception did not apply in this case.  Ms. Davis had slipped on ice that existed under the snow that had not yet been sanded.  The court said the contractor did not create the ice, so it could not be held liable for the icy condition.

There was a thoughtful dissent by Justices Silver and Jabar.  They felt that since the contractor had agreed to be the plowing contractor, it had a duty to respond to the foreseeable dangers posed by the continuing snowstorm.  They thought that there may be circumstances in which a plow contractor, if he was careful, may have prevented this injury.  Consequently, they thought that the matter should be sent back for trial.  A trial does not mean Ms. Davis would have won, just that she would have had a shot at convincing a jury of the rightfulness of her case.

The court declared that the plowing contractors do not owe a duty to the public to do their work so as to protect the public from unsafe conditions due to snow and ice.  Unless the contractor created the unsafe condition, they get a pass from being sued.  Good news for plow contractors.

Written By: Stephen B. Wade