Estate of Summers v. Nisbet – Deadly Fire and Prioritizing Victim Claims

It was one of the most horrific – and deadly – fires in Maine’s history. In 2014, a blaze broke out in a two-story rental unit, killing six people. Soon after, it was alleged the landlord reportedly kept the property in relatively shoddy condition with negligent repairs and poor maintenance – including lack of smoke detectors. fire2

Soon after, there was a rush to file wrongful death lawsuits (five in all) because, as is usually the case, the defendant only has a finite amount of insurance and assets that could cover such claims. But given the large number of deaths, there was a dispute over which family should be the first in line for the payout, if the landlord was indeed found liable for the deaths. (Meanwhile, the landlord faced criminal manslaughter charges.)

Recently, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court settled the issue in Estate of Summers v. Nisbet, closing a legal gap that had existed in the state up to that point. 

Court records and news reports show the first to file was the family of Steven Summers, just 29-years-old at the time of his death. However, plaintiffs filed this claim through a process known as ex parte attachment, which means it’s not made public until after the defendant (here, the landlord) goes through the process of challenging the allegations. These filings are secretive because they have the intention of locking a defendant’s assets without any warning so that the defendant won’t try to hide money or property.

But in this case, the landlord never challenged the attachment in court, so the filing was not made public. When the other families filed their ex parte attachments months later, they had no idea this first one was still pending. If they had, they argued, they would have filed a challenge themselves so that the court could prioritize the victim’s claims, rather than locking them all up for one claimant. Further, the families argued the first plaintiff should have never filed one an ex parte claim to start because there was no indication the landlord would try to hide assets.

The trial court decided to toss the ex parte attachment and also removed Summers from the front of the payout line.

Plaintiffs then appealed that decision all the way up to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (the highest court in the land).

There, one justice noted that it was never anticipated by lawmakers or judges that a defendant wouldn’t challenge one of these attachments, so it became an issue of first impression. The question was whether these secret claims could become invalidated just because no one showed up to challenge it and make it public.

The court ruled it was not. The original claim is no less valid, the court ruled, just because it was filed in secret. And with that, the state high court vacated the lower court’s ruling and put Summers back to the front of the line for claims.

This case shows the importance – particularly in a personal injury case where there may be multiple claimants – of filing the claim early on. This requires reaching out to an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Estate of Summers v. Nisbet, June 7, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Report: Bus Company Flouts Its Own Driver Fatigue Safety Rules, June 2, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog