INSIGHTS On Massachusetts Personal Injury Law

Welcome to the SUGARMAN blog. We'll be sharing our perspectives on the state of the law and current legal issues in Massachusetts personal injury law. Issues relating to medical malpractice, construction site injuries, premises liability, product liability, motor vehicle accidents, insurance, and more will all be reviewed here by our team of lawyers who have prosecuted some of the most complex cases in Massachusetts personal injury law.

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A Building is not a Building: A Puzzling Result (Sheehan vs. Weaver, Supreme Judicial Court 2014)

Massachusetts has long recognized a “breach of warranty of habitability.” It applies to premises rented or leased for habitation such as an apartment or house. Simply, a landlord is liable to a tenant or tenant’s guest injured by a violation of the State Building or Sanitary Code in the apartment or house. The warranty also extends to steps, railings, porches and walks used to enter or exit the apartment or house. A habitability claim is unlike a negligence claim because the injured tenant’s or guest’s own negligence in causing injury does not reduce the amount of damages awarded for the injuries.

Separate from this common law warranty of habitability, our state legislature passed a statute in 1972 providing that a building owner is “strictly” liable for injuries caused by a building code violation in “… a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 143, Section 51. This liability, as with the warranty of habitability, is not reduced by any negligence of the injured party.

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided Sheehan vs. Weaver in December, 2013. Sheehan, on returning from an evening’s drinking, climbed an exterior stairway to his apartment. When he leaned against the railing, it collapsed and he fell to the pavement below suffering serious injuries. At trial of Sheehan’s claim against his landlord, there was evidence of numerous building code violations causing the collapse. The jury found that these violations caused Sheehan’s injuries and also found that the landlord was 60% negligent and Sheehan 40% negligent.

Sheehan’s apartment was located in a mixed use building with three apartments with a chiropractor’s office on the ground floor. The apartments did not share entryways with the chiropractor’s office. The SJC decided that Section 51 did not apply to Sheehan’s claims because “… the structure at issue does not qualify as a ‘building’ under §51.” Since the jury had found Sheehan 40% at fault, this decision meant that his damages were reduced by this percentage.

This leads to the obvious question: “Where was the breach of warranty of habitability?” According to the landlord’s appellate brief, the jury’s findings included:

1. Landlord negligent (60%);
2. Sheehan negligent (40%);
3. Landlord did not breach warranty of habitability;
4. Landlord violated State Building Code.

The trial judge asked whether the case should be resubmitted because of inconsistent findings. Both parties decided to allow the findings to stand. The findings were inconsistent because the violation of the State Building Code causing injury should have required a finding that the warranty of habitability had been breached. But, since the parties agreed not to send the case back to the jury, the verdict, although inconsistent, stood.

Injuries to residential tenants or their guests require prompt investigation to determine whether Massachusetts Building or Sanitary Code violations contributed to the injury. Finding a violation can result in an award of full damages as compared with the reduced damages often realized in a negligence claim. If you have been injured in a rented or leased apartment, house or commercial building, and wish to speak to one of our attorneys regarding liability, please fill out a Contact Form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or e-mail info@sugarman.com.