I love being right.
Two years ago, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman issued a controversial ruling that an owner of a mixed used building was “strictly liable” for a intoxicated tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail in the case of Sheehan v. Weaver. In my prior post on this troubling case, I said “given the concerning expansion of liability in this case, look for this ruling to get appealed. Judge Kerman is a well-respected judge, and this decision is a close call, but I think he went a bit too far outside the legislative intent behind the law.”
Well, that’s exactly what the Supreme Judicial Court said in its ruling today which should provide some relief for residential landlords and their liability insurers.
Faulty Porch Guardrail
The landlord, David Weaver, owned a building with three residential apartments located above a commercial establishment. None of the apartments were owner-occupied. After a night of drinking, one of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. The connection of the guardrail to its post gave way because it was defective and in violation of the Building Code.
After a four-day trial in the Housing Court, a jury found for the tenant on the negligence claim, awarding approximately $145,000 after a 40% reduction for the his own fault. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages. With the strict liability, the landlord was on the hook for the full $242,000 verdict without consideration of the tenant’s own fault. The case went up to the SJC on appeal.
Interpretation of Building Code Statute
The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict liability, that is, liability without any consideration of the comparative fault of the injured, for any personal injuries caused by a building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The SJC ultimately agreed with the landlord that the structure where the tenant was injured was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. The court held that “what commercial and public structures listed in § 51 have in common is that they are places in which a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment, or other purposes.”
What this means is that owners of residential rental property will no longer have to worry about getting hit with a substantial strict liability award for injuries caused by building code violations. However, this does not mean that property owners should not take care of their buildings. They must, and they can still get hit with lawsuits for injuries occurring on their property due to failure to repair or maintain the premises in good condition. Indeed, in this case, the final result is that the tenant’s award will be reduced by about $100,000 but the landlord’s insurance company will still be on the hook for a $145,000 judgment plus 12% interest.