It happens too frequently in the Boston area: the gas company or a contractor carelessly causes a gas leak with the resulting destruction of a home or business. If luck prevails, no one is killed or injured. The gas explosion in Readville of November 3, 2010 is just such an event.
After the fire is out and the news cameras leave, the homeowner is faced with total loss, not only of the home but all its contents. Homeowner’s insurance will provide some compensation based on the market value of the items lost in the fire or explosion (or in some cases replacement cost less depreciation). But what’s the market value of family photos, the family bible, a lovingly tended garden or the many other unique and irreplaceable parts that make a home? The standard homeowner’s policy will not compensate for this loss.
A liability claim against the negligent gas company or contractor is the victim’s only recourse. The usual measure of damages for loss of property in a house fire or explosion is the fair market value of the property. However, fair market value does not adequately describe the value to the owner of the property damaged or destroyed; Massachusetts allows alternate methods of valuing the loss claim. One such method is the cost of restoring the property. This method would be appropriate in the case of a historical home or one that had unique characteristics that were not appropriately addressed by the market value method of the insurance claim. My lovingly tended garden might be an example. However, in the gas explosion situation, the contents most important to the victims may be those that have no market value and for which there is no reasonable hope of restoration, such as the family photos or bible. For these, Massachusetts has allowed the damaged property to be valued by the loss of its enjoyment to the owner resulting from the destruction of the property.
Judge Gants wrote in a damages claim case explaining this rule: “The owner’s loss of enjoyment in the use of her property has been recognized as a measure of damages when (1) the loss of fair rental value is either not calculable or appropriate, or (2) when there is evidence of emotional distress that is not reflected in the loss of fair rental value.” Silva vs. Melville, 12 Mass. L. Rep. 611 (Massachusetts Superior Court 2001). The advice and advocacy of a lawyer experienced in gas explosion cases is essential to the owner of a home destroyed by the negligence of the gas company or a contractor receiving full and fair compensation for the loss.
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