PORTLAND, Maine — For landlord Gregory Nisbet, 30 years of prison time hinges on a close interpretation of Maine housing code. But for landlords around Maine, his trial — however it ends — stands to have broad implications for the future.
Just by standing trial, Nisbet, who is charged with manslaughter stemming from the 2014 fire deaths of six young adults in a building he owned in Portland, is viewed as perhaps the first of many landlords to be charged criminally in Maine for matters historically handled civilly.
“It’s pretty scary for a lot of landlords to see that, in something that’s usually a financial transaction, he’s facing jail time, which is something you don’t think about when you become a landlord,” landlord/tenant lawyer and landlord Regan Sweeney said.
Just the fact the criminal case was brought against Nisbet may benefit Maine renters by spurring landlords to be more rigorous about code compliance, said Kelly McDonald, a Portland lawyer who represents landlords and tenants.
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A conviction, he added, would represent a major shift in the state’s legal landscape.
“Presumably [a conviction] would mean that landlords are going to be more careful about this stuff which should benefit tenants,” McDonald said of housing safety code.
Legal experts interviewed by BDN Portland could point to a comparable case in Maine. But similar cases do exist elsewhere.
In Brooklyn, New York, for instance, a landlord in 2014 pleaded guilty to negligent homicide four years after five immigrants from Guatemala burned to death in a building he owned. Inspectors found that the house had been illegally modified with makeshift apartments, where some of the victims were found dead after being trapped by the fire, the New York Times reported. That Brooklyn case was rare, even by New York standards, the paper reported.
The Nisbet case may turn on details such as the legal definition of a family, the size of the windows on the third floor, how high they were from the ground and how they opened.
A central question in Nisbet’s case, which is being judged by Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren, is the legal classification of the lodging the building at 20-24 Noyes St. at the time of the fire: either a single-family home or a boarding house.
This is pivotal to the state’s argument that it was “not the fire but [Nisbet’s] conduct” that killed six people on Halloween 2014, because the prosecution alleges the landlord failed to meet the demanding fire-safety obligations of boarding houses.
In that type of housing, a landlord is required to offer more in terms of fire detection and means of escape, compared to a single-family home, the head of the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Inspection and Prevention Division, Richard MacCarthy, testified Wednesday.
In a family home, the state presumes residents would have greater knowledge of the building and communicate more than among those in a boarding house, where residents may be transient and unacquainted, MacCarthy told the court.
Inspectors at the time determined that Nisbet’s building was a boarding house because the unrelated tenants at the 20 Noyes address did not have a lease, paid rent separately and some had locks on the outside of their doors, MacCarthy testified.
Nisbet’s lawyers have been challenging that point, suggesting MacCarthy lacked important facts at the time and that the property is better defined as a family home.
The courtroom wrangling over just what type of lodging Nisbet owned is worrying to landlords because it is quite common for a group of young Mainers to live together and share rent in a multi-room home, said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.
Many landlords keep this type of rental up to code requirements for a family home, Vitalius said, but “if it’s a rooming house it’s a totally different code and suddenly you’re negligent and you can be changed with manslaughter.”
The fire to have been accidentally caused by a stray cigarette and that residents disabled smoke detectors in the buildings.
The people killed in the fire were David Bragdon, 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26, who lived in the building, and visitors Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland, Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham and Chris Conlee, 25, of Portland.
The deadly blaze already has prompted changes in how Portland and other Maine cities approach housing safety. In 2015, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to create the Housing Safety Office, which keeps a registry of rental properties and employs three full-time housing inspectors to enforce code. Before, the city fire department had proactively inspected multi-unit apartment buildings but not the two-family homes that are common in Portland.
Vitalius consulted in the creation of the safety office and said it has improved conditions for landlords and tenants.
But a conviction in the Nisbet case would expose landlords to criminal prosecution for events beyond their control, he said, adding that criminal liability for fire is especially worrying in Portland where many buildings are more than 100 years old.