News Alert: SJC Addresses Application of Strict Liability Statute

SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT ADDRESSES STRICT LIABILITY STATUTE WHERE
BUILDING CODE VIOLATIONS ALLEGED

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has handed down its decision in the case of Sheehan v. Weaver, SJC -11395 (April 10, 2014).  The case concerns the application of M.G.L. c. 143, § 51 and addresses the extent to which parties in control of certain types of premises may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by conditions which violate the State Building Code.

The statute states in relevant part:

“The owner, lessee, mortgagee in possession or occupant, being the party in control, of a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building shall comply with the provisions of this chapter and the state building code relative thereto, and such person shall be liable to any person injured for all damages caused by a violation of any of said provisions.”  M.G.L. c. 143, § 51

In Sheehan, the plaintiff filed suit in Northeast Housing Court alleging negligence, breach of the implied warranty of habitability, violation of the covenant of quiet enjoyment under M.G.L. c. 186, § 14, violation of the state building code under M.G.L. c. 143, § 51, and unfair and deceptive practices under M.G.L. c. 93A.  The defendant landlords owned a mixed-use three-story building, the first floor of which was occupied by a commercial tenant and the remainder of which was occupied by three residential tenants. The suit arose after the plaintiff, a residential tenant, fell through a second-floor porch guardrail and sustained serious injuries. There was evidence that the plaintiff was intoxicated at the time of the fall.  The case was tried to a jury, which found in favor of the plaintiff on the negligence count; found the plaintiff to be comparatively negligent, attributing 40% of the negligence to him; and also found that the defendants were strictly liable to the plaintiff pursuant to M.G.L. c. 143, § 51.  The defendant’s Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict and/or New Trial was denied.

In its decision, the SJC considered: 1) whether  M.G.L. c. 143, § 51 applies only to injuries caused by fire safety violations and sustained on stairways or egresses when actively fleeing from a fire as had been previously held, or if the statute has a broader application such that any building code violation that causes injury at a qualifying structure could subject the parties in control to strict liability, and 2) whether the mixed use, commercial/residential structure in question qualified as a “building” under § 51.

The SJC, examining the legislative history of § 51, determined that § 51 was not limited in its application to injuries caused by fire safety violations and sustained on stairways or egresses when actively fleeting from a fire.  The Court instead held that § 51 applied to all State building code violations, thereby exposing those in control of structures encompassed by the statute to strict liability for injuries caused by any such violations and any violation of G.L. c. 143.  In so holding, the Court overruled its statements to the contrary in the case of McAllister v. Boston Hous. Auth., 429 Mass. 300, 304 n.5 (1999).

The SJC went on to indicate that the general term “building” included in the statute was to be more narrowly construed consistent with the type of structures specifically enumerated in the statute.  The Court noted that those structures “are places in which a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment or other purposes” such that § 51 is properly focused “on structures in which building code violations pose a risk to a significant number of people.”  The Court further found that the term “building” may encompass only a portion of a larger structure.  The Court held that because the building code violations and injury in Sheehan occurred in the residential portion of the mixed-use structure, that portion was determined not to qualify as a “building” under § 51.

The SJC’s decision does expand the potential exposure for injuries caused by building code violations.  Several defenses nonetheless remain intact, including: 1) challenging control of the subject premises; 2) challenging that the statute applies to the structure in question; and 3) challenging causation of the plaintiff’s injuries.

If you have any questions or would like to further discuss the ramifications of the Sheehan decision, please feel free to contact David Hassett at 508- 791-6287 or dhassett@hassettanddonnelly.com at any time.