Premises Liability:  Maryland landowner not in possession or control of the premises

It has long been the general rule of Maryland premises liability law  that a landlord is not liable for injuries to a tenant or third party caused by defects or dangerous conditions where the landlord, or owner, has completely parted with control of the leased premises.  Marshall v. Price, 162 Md. 687, 161 A. 172, 172-73 (Md. 1932). The Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest court of the State of Maryland, has stated the rationale for this rule:

When land is leased to a tenant, the law of property regards the lease as equivalent to a sale of the premises for the term. The lessee acquires an estate in the land, and becomes for the time being both owner and occupier, subject to all of the responsibilities of one in possession, to those who enter upon the land and those outside of its boundaries.

Henley v. Prince George's Cnty., 305 Md. 320, 503 A.2d 1333, 1342 (Md. 1986) (quoting William L. Prosser & Robert E. Keeton, Law of Torts § 63, at 434 (5th ed. 1984)).

Conversely, a landlord owes a duty to the occupant of a leased property or to a third party on the premises if: (1) the landlord controlled the dangerous or defective condition; (2) the landlord knew or should have known of the condition; and (3) the loss suffered was a foreseeable result of that condition. Hemmings v. Pelham Wood Ltd. Liab. Ltd. P'ship, 375 Md. 522, 826 A.2d 443, 452 (Md. 2003).  For example, where a landlord has leased premises to multiple tenants, it has a duty to maintain common areas under its control in a reasonably safe condition. E.g., Shields v. Wagman, 350 Md. 666, 714 A.2d 881, 884-85 (Md. 1988); Honolulu Ltd. v. Cain, 244 Md. 590, 224 A.2d 433, 435-436 (Md. 1966). When analyzing a landlord's duty, courts must apply a balancing test, considering the landlord's degree of control and ability to remedy the condition along with the foreseeability of the harm. Matthews v. Amberwood Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 351 Md. 544, 719 A.2d 119, 129 (Md. 1998).

Where the landowner has totally surrendered possession and control of the premises, that should relieve the landowner of any alleged liability, as a matter of law, for the criminal acts of third parties that took place on the premises after all possession and control passed to the lessee. In Henley v. Prince George’s County, 305 Md. 320, 337-338, 503 A.2d 1333 (1986), which arose out of the brutal murder of a child, the Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s grant of summary judgment to the owner of the property, on grounds that the owner (a college) had surrendered control of the premises to the county during the period of time involved in the action.   See also Rowley v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 305 Md. 456, 464, 505 A.2d 494 (1986)( "The liability of a landowner for injuries received on the land is dependent upon whether the device which caused the injury is in his possession and control.  Section 328 of the Restatement defines an owner and occupier of land in terms of a possessor of land. . . .”). 

Maryland law is clear that liability as an owner of land is defined in terms of possession and control of the property.  See Marshall v. Price, supra; Henley, supra; Rowley v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 305 Md. 456, 464, 505 A.2d 494 (1986). 

The Maryland Court of Appeals has observed that it is “often overlooked” that it is the possession of property, not the ownership, from which duty flows towards one who comes in contact with the property.  See Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co. v. Lane, 338 Md. 34, 44-46 (Md. 1995), overruled on other grounds, Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co. v. Flippo, 348 Md. 680, 694-699 (Md. 1998).  The Court in Lane went on to state as follows:

In Rowley, supra, 305 Md. at 464, we said:"In determining whether the City as owner of the Convention Center owed a duty to invitees, we must consider the threshold question of whether the City was in possession and control of the building. The liability of a landowner for injuries received on the land is dependent upon whether the device which caused the injury is in his possession and control. Section 328 [E] of the Restatement defines an owner and occupier of land in terms of a possessor of land…."  See also W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 57, at 386 (5th ed. 1984) ("Largely for historical reasons, the rights and liabilities arising out of the condition of land, and activities conducted upon it, have been concerned chiefly with the possession of the land, and this has continued into the present day.") (emphasis added). Possession involves both the present intent to control the object and some ability to control it. Restatement §§ 216, 328 E. See also Rowley, supra, 305 Md. at 464 (quoting Restatement § 328 E); Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law 238 (stating that a person has possession when "he has the present intent and power to exclude others").

Lane, 338 Md. at 45-46 (footnotes omitted). 

The Maryland Court of Appeals has observed that “A landlord's control over conditions on its premises always has been a critical factor that we consider in determining landlord liability.”  Hemmings v. Pelham Wood Ltd. Liab. Ltd. P'ship, 375 Md. 522, 537 (Md. 2003).  When analyzing a landlord's duty, courts must apply a balancing test, considering the landlord's degree of control and ability to remedy the condition along with the foreseeability of the harm. Matthews v. Amberwood Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 351 Md. 544, 719 A.2d 119, 129 (Md. 1998).  The Court of Appeals has recognized that the duty of an owner of land is limited under the “foreseeability of harm” test, to avoid liability for unreasonably remote consequences.  See Rosenblatt v. Exxon Co., U.S.A., 335 Md. 58, 77 (Md. 1994)(prior commercial property owner not liable to subsequent commercial property owner for negligence).

Whether the owner owed any duty to the plaintiff should ordinarily be a question of law for the court, and can often be decided by motion.  In order to establish a claim for negligence under Maryland law, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the plaintiff suffered actual harm; and (4) the harm was proximately caused by the defendant's breach of duty. Grimes v. Kennedy Krieger Inst., Inc., 366 Md. 29, 782 A.2d 807, 841 (Md. 2001).  Significantly, "[t]he existence of a duty is a matter of law to be determined by the court  . . . ."  Bobo v. Maryland, 346 Md. 706, 697 A.2d 1371, 1376 (Md. 1997). 

As stated in Hemmings v. Pelham Wood Ltd. Liab. Ltd. P’ship, 367 Md. 522, 536 (Md. 2003):

Because whether one party owed a duty to another requires a legal determination based on statutes, rules, principles, and precedents, it is ordinarily for the court rather than the jury to decide. Valentine, 353 Md. at 549, 727 A.2d at 949 ("The existence of a legal duty is a question of law to be decided by the court."); see also W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 37, at 236 (5th ed., 1984) ("Whether the interest of the plaintiff which has suffered invasion was entitled to legal protection at the hands of the defendant . . . . is entirely a question of law, to be determined by reference to the body of statutes, rules, principles and precedents which make up the law . . .").

Categories: Defenses, Maryland