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Evergreen Associates, LLC v. Crawford

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 10, 2013

EVERGREEN ASSOCIATES, LLC
v.
JOSEPH CRAWFORD

Woodward, Zarnoch, Bair, Gary E. (Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

Woodward, J.

On May 26, 2009, a fire originated in the basement of a building located at 1 West Main Street in Frostburg, Maryland, resulting in substantial damage to the building. At the time of the fire, appellant, Evergreen Associates, LLC ("Evergreen"), was the owner and commercial landlord of the building, having leased the first floor and part of the basement of the building to appellee, Joseph Crawford, in connection with his operation of a "Gianni's Pizza" restaurant.

Evergreen filed suit against appellee in the Circuit Court for Allegany County, claiming, inter alia, that the fire was caused by an unnamed third party who was able to gain access to the basement of the building through an unlocked door. Appellee filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and the circuit court granted appellee's motion on the grounds that appellee owed no duty to Evergreen to secure the property against the unforeseeable criminal acts of a third party.

On appeal, Evergreen presents one question for our review, [1] which we have rephrased:

Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment in favor of appellee?
Finding no error, we will affirm the judgment of the trial court.

BACKGROUND

Evergreen, who is the owner and landlord of a four-level building located at 1 West Main Street, Frostburg, Maryland, entered into a lease agreement with appellee on July 1, 2008. The lease provided appellee with use of the building's first floor for the purpose of operating a "Gianni's Pizza" restaurant for a one-year term. The first floor had a street-level "front door" entrance for use by appellee's customers. Appellee also leased a small portion of the basement for storage, which had its own basement-level "back door" entrance for use by appellee's employees. The back door could only be locked or unlocked by using a key from outside of the building.

Included within Section 5 of the lease agreement, entitled "Maintenance, " was the following language:

Tenant will, at the expiration of the Term or at the sooner termination thereof by forfeiture or otherwise, deliver up the Premises in the same good order and condition as it was at the beginning of the tenancy, reasonable wear and tear excepted. Tenant shall not, however, be liable to repair any damage caused by insured casualty, except to the extent that the cost of such repair exceeds the insurance proceeds with respect thereto and the damage is occasioned by the fault or neglect of Tenant . . . .

On May 26, 2009, a fire originated in the basement of the building, resulting in substantial damage to the entire building. Following the fire, on December 11, 2009, Evergreen filed a complaint in circuit court against appellee, alleging one count of negligence. In its complaint, Evergreen asserted that "the fire was started by an unnamed assailant who freely entered the [b]uilding through an unlocked door, " which was made possible by appellee: (1) leaving a door unlocked, and/or (2) providing all of his employees with keys to the building and not requiring the return of such keys upon termination of employment. On April 14, 2010, Evergreen filed an Amended Complaint, adding a count of breach of contract.[2] As to the breach of contract claim, Evergreen argued in its amended complaint that appellee violated Section 5 of the lease by "failing to deliver the [b]uilding in the same good order and condition as it was at the beginning of the tenancy."

Appellee filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on June 8, 2012. Appellee argued that he did not "owe a legal duty of care to Evergreen to protect its property against the criminal activities (arson) of third parties, " thereby precluding Evergreen's negligence and breach of contract claims as a matter of law. On July 13, 2012, the circuit court held a hearing on appellee's motion for summary judgment. Subsequent to the hearing, the court granted appellee's motion as to both the negligence and breach of contract claims in an order dated July 20, 2012.[3] The circuit court reasoned that there was "no authority for the proposition that [appellee] owed a duty to protect [Evergreen's] property from the unforeseeable criminal acts of a third party." Evergreen noted a timely appeal to this Court.

Additional facts will be set forth below, as needed, to resolve Evergreen's question presented.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court's review of a trial court's grant of summary judgment is well established:

The question of whether a trial court's grant of summary judgment was proper is a question of law subject to de novo review on appeal. Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the party in whose favor judgment is entered is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. On appeal, the appellate court will review the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and construe any reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts against the moving party. In reviewing a grant of summary judgment under Maryland Rule 2-501, we independently review the record to determine whether the parties properly generated a dispute of material fact and, if not, whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Worsham v. Ehrlich, 181 Md.App. 711, 723, cert. denied, 406 Md. 747 (2008) (internal citations omitted). In the usual case, this Court must "first determine whether there are disputed material facts. A dispute of fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the case. If we conclude there are no disputed material facts, we decide whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Page v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 200 Md.App. 463, 478 (2011). A proper analysis of the instant case, however, calls upon us to address the legal issue first, before determining if there are any material facts in dispute. SeeTodd v. MTA, 373 Md. ...


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