Premises Liability

apartment-balconySheehan v. Weaver: Strict Liability For Building Code Violations Does Not Apply To Residential Structures

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.

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NIGHTCODE_CRR3The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code governs the minimal standards of fitness and conditions for human habitation of rental occupancy of property. Unfortunately, most landlords become familiar with the lengthy code only after tenants or the local Board of Health cites them for code violations. As a landlord-tenant attorney, I’ve created this comprehensive summary of the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code. Mind you, this does not cover every single provision,  just the important ones, in my opinion. Keep this handy guide on your nightstands in case you have insomnia! Seriously, this is important information for all rental property owners in Massachusetts.

Scope

The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code is found at 105 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 410, which can be downloaded by clicking here. The Sanitary Code applies to all rental properties in Massachusetts including owner-occupied multi-families, rooming houses and temporary housing. The only exceptions are dwellings located on a campground and civil defense shelters.

Kitchen and Bathroom Requirements

The Code provides that every rental unit where common cooking facilities are provided shall contain a kitchen sink, a stove and oven and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. Each unit must include at least one toilet, one washbasin (which cannot be the kitchen sink) and one bathtub or shower in a separate bathroom. Privies and chemical toilets are prohibited except with Board of Health permission.

Potable Water

Landlords must provide “a supply of potable water sufficient in quantity and pressure to meet the ordinary needs of the occupant” either connected to town/city water or private well with Board of Health approval. The landlord may charge tenants for actual water usage if separately assessed and metered. Hot water must also be provided of not less than 110°F and no more than 130°F.

Heating

Landlords must provide for adequate heating in every habitable room of a rental unit including bathrooms. Portable space heaters and similar equipment are prohibited. Heating must be provided to no less than 68°F between 7AM and 11PM and at least 64°F between 11PM and 7AM, except between June 15 and September 15.

Natural Light and Lighting Fixtures

The Code requires at least one window in all rooms except the kitchen if less than 70 s.f. Lighting fixtures must be provided in all bathrooms. Two outlets must be provided in every habitable room, and sufficient lighting provided in all hallways, foyers, laundry rooms and the like. Buildings over ten units must have auxiliary emergency lighting. Screens must be provided for all windows on the first floor.

Maintenance Obligations

An oft-litigated area, the Code provides for maintenance obligations for both landlord and tenant. Landlords must maintain and repair whatever appliances he has installed in the unit. If a tenant has paid for and installed an appliance himself, however, he is responsible for maintaining it. Tenants are also responsible for the general cleanliness of toilets, sinks, showers, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances. So when the tenant claims there is mold in the bathroom, the landlord can argue that the tenant’s lack of cleanliness is the cause. Landlords must also exterminate any pest, insect or rodent infestation.

Asbestos and Lead Paint Materials

If there is asbestos material in the unit, the landlord must keep it in good repair, free of all defects, cracks and tears which would allow for the release of asbestos dust. Due to the liability exposure, it’s a good idea for any landlord to remove all asbestos materials. Lead paint is absolutely prohibited where children under 6 are occupying. See my previous posts on the Lead Paint Law for more info on this complex area.

Utility Metering

Owners must provide electric and gas service to tenants unless they are separately metered and billed to the unit and the lease provides for same. Separate water metering is permissible so long as the landlord gets written approval from the local Board of Health and complies with the metering requirements of General Laws chapter 186, section 22. For homes heated with oil, the owner must provide the oil unless it is provided through a separate oil tank servicing only that dwelling unit.

Minimum Square Footage

* 150 s.f. for the first occupant, and no less than 100 s.f. for each additional occupant
* Bedrooms — 70 s.f. for first occupant, 50 s.f. for each additional occupant
All ceilings must be no less than 7 feet.

Egress/Snow and Ice Removal

Property owners must keep all means of egress free from obstruction. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. Otherwise, landlords are responsible for snow and ice removal. Even if the tenant is responsible, the landlord could still face liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under recent Massachusetts case law.

Locks

Owners must install locks for every door of a dwelling unit capable of being secured from unlawful entry. The main entry door of a three unit dwelling or more must be installed with a automatic locking mechanism.

Smoke/CO2 Detectors

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors must be installed in accordance with the Mass. Fire Code.

Railings

Owners must provide safe handrails for every stairway, and a wall or guardrail on every open side of a stairway no less than 30 inches in height. For porches and balconies, a wall or guardrail at least 36 inches high must be provided. Between all guardrails and handrails, balusters at intervals of no more than 6 inches for pre-1997 construction, and at 4.5 inches for post 1997 construction must be provided.

Inspections and Code Violations

The Code provides that the local Board of Health or Inspector can inspect any unit upon the  oral or written complaint of an occupant. Inspections are supposed to take place within 24 hours of the complaint, but that rarely happens. The inspector will prepare a code violation form. Serious violations such as failure to provide heat or water must be corrected within 12 hours. Less serious violations should be corrected within 5 – 30 days depending on the type of violation. Violators have a right to a hearing before the board of health to contest any code violations.

Code violations are criminal proceedings and should not be ignored. Penalties can result in $500/day fines and even condemnation of the premises.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. If you have been cited for violations of the State Sanitary Code or have questions about it, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

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dive-warningLandlords Could Be Held Responsible for Tenant Paralyzed Jumping from Trampoline into Kiddie Pool

I don’t write a lot about premises liability in this blog, but this tragic case out of my hometown of Framingham may be a classic example of the saying that “hard cases make bad law.“ The Supreme Judicial Court has granted a new trial to a man paralyzed by jumping off a trampoline into a kiddie pool while playing with his small son. The case is Dos Santos v. Coleta (SJC – 11188). This is a case which will get all the tort-reformers screaming in protest, but it is evident that premises liability law in Massachusetts keeps on evolving and not in a good way for property owners.

The moral of this case for landlords and all homeowners is to not leave potentially dangerous contraptions in yards for tenants and kids to get injured on. Also, make sure you have liability insurance coverage for at least $1 Million, and look into getting an excess umbrella policy for up to $5 Million.

Summer Fun Goes Terribly Wrong

In the summer of 2005, Cleber Dos Santos lived with his wife and son in one unit of a two-family home in Framingham that he rented from the Coleta family. The landlords, who lived in the other unit, set up a trampoline immediately adjacent to an inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. The landlord disregarded warnings printed on the side of the pool cautioning against jumping or diving into the pool. He knew that setting up the trampoline next to the pool might be dangerous but thought it would be “fun.”

The landlords moved to South Carolina on July 31, but they maintained ownership of the home and continued to rent the other unit to Dos Santos and his family. The landlords left the pool and trampoline in the backyard and understood that both items would continue to be used by their friends and family.

On the evening of August 2, 2005, Dos Santos, who had never before used the trampoline, came home from work and decided to play with his son on the trampoline while his wife recorded a video of them to send to their extended family in Brazil. He decided to entertain his son by flipping into the pool. He severely underrotated the flip, entered the water headfirst, and struck his head on the bottom of the pool. As a result of the impact, Dos Santos sustained a burst fracture of his C-5 vertebrae, and is permanently paralyzed from the upper chest down. He has been hospitalized ever since with medical bills exceeding $700,000.

SJC Clarifies Open and Obvious Danger Rule

Perhaps not surprisingly, the jury rendered a defense verdict on the basis that Dos Santos’ backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool was an “open and obvious” danger. But the SJC found the trial judge’s jury instructions lacking, holding that even if the jury believed that the danger present was open and obvious, the jury should have considered whether the absentee landlord should have removed or remedied the dangerous trampoline/pool setup from the backyard.

Having established that the existence of an open and obvious danger will not necessarily relieve a landowner of all duties to lawful entrants with regard to that danger, we set out to answer the following principal question: where the duty to warn has been negated, in what circumstances will the duty to remedy nevertheless exist–or, in other words, in what circumstances “can and should a landowner anticipate that the dangerous condition will cause physical harm to the lawful entrant notwithstanding its known or obvious danger”?

In plain English, Judge Cordy is basically saying that performing a backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool may be stupid and dangerous, but it’s also just as stupid and dangerous for a landlord to leave the deadly contraption out in the backyard for anyone to get injured on.

The justices ordered a new trial in the case, so this tragic 8 year legal saga will continue on. (Also remember that it appears that the landlords are covered by a liability insurance policy, the amount of which is unknown).

In sum, the SJC has now shown that Massachusetts premises liability law continues to shift towards even greater responsibility and liability for rental property owners.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150Richard Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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19 Students Crammed Into Two Family Death Trap

allston-2This story makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, this practice is endemic in the Allston-Brighton area as local landlords frequently exploit the countless students in the area. You can expect the City of Boston ISD to start cracking down on these slumlords big-time.

As reported today on Boston.com, the owner of the Allston two family residence on Linden Street where a Boston University student died in a fire this weekend was cited today for operating an illegal rooming house because she allegedly allowed 19 people to live in a two-family home. Landlord Anna Belokurova was also cited for failing to obtain proper permits before creating bedrooms in the basement of the building at 87 Linden St., where a three-alarm fire Sunday killed Binland Lee, a 22-year-old BU marine sciences student from Brooklyn, N.Y.

A City of Boston ordinance also says that no more than four un­related undergraduate students are permitted to live in a dwelling, while authorities say that at least six of the 19 residents were BU students.

The city last inspected the building in 1992 when it approved a prior owner’s plan to convert a single-family home into a two-family. Those modifications included a firewall that closed the internal stairway between the first and second floors, creating a maze-like path from one story to another, ­interrupted by a steel door that served as a divider between the units,the Globe reported today.

A quick search on the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds indicates that Ms. Belokurova was under financial distress, as several foreclosure and condo lien proceedings were filed against her in recent years. Perhaps this is why she attempted to pack tenants in her rental property like sardines.

The code violations are going to be the least of Ms. Belokurova’s concerns as the family of the deceased student is likely readying a wrongful death lawsuit. Again, there is just no excuse for flaunting the law like this, especially given the tragic end-result.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein is a well-known Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. You can reach him via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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Largest Lead Paint Penalty On Record for Attorney General Coakley

Landlords with lead paint beware…enforcement of the state’s strict Lead Paint Law remains a priority for Attorney General Coakley’s office. The AG just hit a Boston area property owner with the largest fine on record — $75,000 — and ordered him to de-lead his rental units, resolving allegations that he engaged in a pattern of unlawful and retaliatory practices against tenants with young children in order to avoid his obligation to comply with state lead paint laws. The AG’s press release can be read here.

The offending landlord is Keith L. Miller, of Newton, who at the time owned and managed at least 24 residential rental units in Chelsea, Newton, Arlington, and Brighton. This is the largest fair housing settlement with a landlord that has been reached under AG Coakley.

The Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, one of the strictest in the U.S., imposes a mandatory obligation to de-lead if there is a child under 6 residing in the rental premises. A property owner or real estate agent cannot get around the law simply by refusing to rent to families with young children. They also cannot refuse to renew the lease of a pregnant woman or a family with young children just because a property may contain lead hazards. And property owners cannot refuse to rent simply because they do not want to spend the money to de-lead the property. Any of these acts is a violation of the Lead Law, the Consumer Protection Act, and various Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes that can have serious penalties for a property owner or real estate agent.

The state has several lead paint financial assistance programs to help landlords pay for de-leading costs which can be quite expensive.

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alg-domestic-violence-illustration-jpgUnder the new Massachusetts Domestic Violence Act recently signed into law, victims of sexual assault and stalking have the right to break their leases without significant financial penalty, have the landlord change their locks, and other important protections. The important provisions of the new law are as follows:

  • In order to break a lease, victims are required to provide notice to landlords that they were subject to a sexual assault or rape or under imminent threat of same within three (3) months of the incident
  • Landlords may request supporting documentation such as a police report or restraining order (which they must keep confidential).
  • Provided the tenant victim provides the proper notice, she will be relieve of financial liability for 30 days or one full rental period of rent, plus a return of any last month’s rent and security deposit.
  • The new law applies to anyone in the renter’s household.
  • Victims of sexual assault or stalking may require that the landlord change the unit’s locks within 48 hours at the tenant’s expense. If the landlord fails to act, the tenant may change the locks herself.
  • If the perpetrator of the sex crime or threat is a household member (i.e., spouse/boyfriend), the landlord may authorize the lock-out the perpetrator by changing the locks and withholding the new key.
  • Landlord’s who comply with the new law are generally absolved from liability to the perpetrator.
  • Noncompliance with the new law can result in damages equal to 3x the rental amount, plus payment of the tenant’s legal fees, which may be set off against any unpaid rent.

The bill, as finally passed, was signed off by both tenant and landlord industry groups, after several years of debate. A link to the new Massachusetts domestic violence law can be found here. 

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who frequently advises landlords on their legal obligations under Massachusetts landlord and tenant law.

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Ice slip drink

Blizzard Warning Issued For 2/7/13

This post will provide you with frequently asked questions concerning Massachusetts snow and ice removal law.

I am a homeowner and rental property owner. Am I legally required to clear snow and ice after a storm?

The law now in Massachusetts is that all Massachusetts property owners and landlords are legally responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property. In 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overruled 125 years of legal precedent which protected property owners from “natural accumulations of ice and snow,” and announced this new rule. My prior post on the case can be read here. The rule applies across the board, to homeowners, landlords, commercial business owners, restaurants, everyone.

I am a landlord. How long do I have to shovel snow and ice on my rental property?

There is no clear cut answer to this question, and juries and courts will ultimately decide what is reasonable. The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. My advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

My lease states that the tenant is responsible for snow shoveling. Will that protect me from liability?

Probably not. A person who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors. The landlord may bring a claim for contribution/indemnification against the tenant.

L_ice_meltI live in Boston, and I heard I have to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house after a storm. Is that true?

Yes. On top of their added responsibilities, property owners in several Massachusetts communities, including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester, are required by local ordinances to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. The City of Boston mandates clean sidewalks within 6 hours of a storm; Worcester is 12 hours.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

If you have additional questions, please ask them in the comment forms below!

Resources: City of Cambridge Snow Removal Policy, City of Boston Know Snow Fact Page

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who advises property owners and landlords as to liability issues. Please contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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69 Year Old Woman Found Dead After Neighbor’s Handyman Cuts 30-foot Arborvitaes; Estate Recovers $150,000 Wrongful Death Settlement

In a tragic case out of Somerset, Massachusetts reported by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a woman’s estate has recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after she dropped dead when her neighbor cut down a row of trees which she and her husband planted 40 years ago.

According to Taunton lawyer Claudine A. Cloutier, who represented the woman’s estate, the neighbor hired a worker to remove some of the trees. When the woman discovered they had been cut down, she apparently became emotionally distraught. Her son found her dead in a chair the next day. There were no signs of trauma. Her estate brought negligence and tort claims against the neighbor, alleging wrongful death partially caused by stress arising from the destruction of the plants. The case went to mediation, and was settled before trial for $150,000.

Massachusetts Illegal Tree Cutting Law

Disputes over tree pruning and cutting are very common in Massachusetts. Indeed, Massachusetts has one of the oldest tree cutting and trimming laws on the books which provides for triple damages for any illegal cutting:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

Nevertheless, at common law, a neighbor may remove branches extending over a shared property line onto his or her own property. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. You can trim the branches and roots back, but you cannot kill the tree. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Damages are assessed that either the market value of the timber or the replacement cost of the trees. Replacement cost typically requires the assistance of an expert arborist or landscaper. In a case out of Martha’s Vineyard, the appeals court upheld a $30,000 award for the replacement cost of 10 mature oak trees. Upon a finding of maliciousness under the tree cutting law, those damages were tripled.

Before cutting, trimming or pruning trees on or near your property line, it’s always a good idea to consult your plot plan or survey and speak to your neighbor before taking out the chain saws.

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

More ResourcesMassachusetts Law Library

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience real estate attorney who has litigated numerous illegal tree cutting cases. If you are dealing with a Massachusetts unlawful tree cutting or trimming situation, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Update (8/3/12): Restroom Access Bill Signed Into Law

Retailers Regrettably Opposed to Law For Restroom Access To Crohn’s, Colitis Sufferers

I heard about this bill on the radio yesterday, and at first I was caught up in the bathroom-humor word play by the DJ. But when I did some more research on Crohn’s Disease and asked my Facebook friends about it, this became serious, as it should.

Millions of Americans (including just retired Pats lineman Matt Light: read great ESPN piece) suffer from debilitating Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other inflammatory bowel diseases. Victims suffer from frequent and sudden bowel movements, diarrhea and excessive urination. For these folks, a walk around Boston can turn literally soiled when shopkeepers close the door on restroom access. This is an all too common reaction by insensitive shopkeepers, and State Rep. Louis Kafka wants to change that.

Rep. Kafka (D-Stoughton) filed the “Restroom Access” bill, which the House initially approved this week, on behalf of a Sharon girl with an intestinal disorder who found herself in uncomfortable situations on shopping trips with her mom. “When the problem arises, they need to get to a bathroom quickly and, in some cases, there are no public restrooms,” he said. ((Note: this bill is completely different from the controversial “Bathroom Bill” giving transgendered persons restroom access.))

The new legislation, if passed, will require Massachusetts retailers and restaurants to open their private bathrooms to sufferers of inflammatory bowel diseases — and fine them $100 if they don’t. The law would apply only to people with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or any other medical condition requiring immediate access to a bathroom, as well as those who wear ostomy bags.

Retailers Opposed, But Why The Big Stink?

The Restroom Bill is unfortunately causing a major stink with retailers. “Why single out only retailers?” Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst told the Boston Herald, “Why not banks, why not office buildings, why not government buildings? I walk into the State House and see a lot of locked bathrooms.” Donna DePrisco, vice president of Boston’s DePrisco Diamond Jewelers, said legislative action just isn’t necessary.

The bill has been tweaked to address retailers’ concerns. It applies only to stores with at least two people working, so cash registers aren’t left unmanned; it absolves retailers from liability; and the restrooms must be in accessible areas that don’t pose health or safety risks to customers.

Well-known Condominium Attorney Stephen M. Marcus, who suffers himself from Crohn’s Disease and created the charitable foundation, IntestinalFortitude.com, supports the bill and says that

“Access to restrooms issue is a serious one for the 1.4 million Americans with Crohn’s and colitis, mainly teenagers. I’m sure retailers will adjust to this law in the same way condominium and apartment owners adjusted to the rights of persons with disabilities to make reasonable modifications to their property for persons with disabilities.”

Support the Restroom Access Bill!

My personal opinion is that I strongly support this bill. I think retailers’ concerns are way overblown.  Retailers are worried about lawsuits, but the bill provides immunity from liability for slip & falls and injuries. More importantly, allowing restroom access for people who medically need it is basic human decency and common courtesy.

If retailers were really savvy on public relations, they would turn this into a positive by putting a sign or sticker with “Restroom Open” with the familiar purple Crohn’s Disease ribbon. How’s that for a win-win!

For more information about Crohn’s and Colitis Disease, check out www.ccfa.org. To support the Restroom Access Bill, please email or write to Rep. Louis Kafka and reference House Bill 2366.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and land use attorney. Mr. Vetstein frequently advises Massachusetts property owners concerning their legal obligations under various public accommodations laws.

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When you are considering purchasing a home in Massachusetts, the property may have the benefit or burden of an easement. Most easements and restrictions are quite “harmless” and standard, however, some can have a major impact on future expansion possibilities and the right to use portions of the property. In this post, I’m going to go through the most common types of easements and how they can affect property.

What Is An Easement?

In plain English, an easement is a right that another person or company has to use your property. They don’t own your property, but the easement gives them the legal right to use your property as specified in the easement instrument. The property that enjoys the benefit of the easement is sometimes referred to as the “dominant estate,” and the property over, under, or through which the easement runs is sometimes referred to as the “servient estate.” Easements are usually recorded in the registry of deeds, but sometimes they can arise from “implication” or “by necessity.” I’ll explain those later.

Utility Easements

The most common types of easements in Massachusetts are utility easements for such things as overhead and underground power lines, cable lines, gas lines, and water mains. These easements allow the utility companies to use portions of residential property to provide their respective utility services. Sometimes, the easements will show up on a plot plan or survey, and some will be found recorded in the title, usually when the lot was first laid out. The majority of these easements do not materially affect the use and expansion of your property, however, the one type of easement to take note of are high pressure gas line easements.  For obvious safety reasons, these easements usually carry with them strict restrictions on what can be built on or near them.

Driveway or Access Easements

Another common type of easements that are found in Massachusetts are access easements for driveways and the like. Properties with shared driveways will often have easements enabling such sharing– or they should! These easements should also provide for common maintenance and upkeep responsibilities and expense. Other types of access easements include walking and bike paths and beach access – very common down the Cape and on the Islands.

Drainage Easements

Another common type of easements are drainage easements which are typical for newer subdivisions. Drainage easements allow for one lot to drain its storm water onto another or into a detention pond.

Prescriptive Easements

If you have heard of adverse possession, then you know what a prescriptive easement is all about. An easement by prescription is an easement acquired through adverse possession – which is the hostile adverse use of someone else’s property for 20 or more continuous years. Prescriptive easements arise where people have acted as though an easement has existed but there is no instrument of easement recorded at the registry of deeds. For example, a prescriptive easement can arise if a neighbor’s family has used a walking path on the neighbor’s property for over 20 years. twenty years. I’ve written extensively on adverse possession in this post.

Easements by Implication and by Necessity

An easement by implication is found in the law when there is no recorded easement, but where the circumstances show an easement was intended to exist. It usually exists where there is common ownership of a lot, the seller conveys a portion of the land under current ownership, and both parties intended to create an easement at the time of conveyance. If someone claims an easement by implication which negatively affects one’s property, the owner’s title insurance policy, if any, will typically cover that situation. Easements by necessity occur when a property is sold in a land-locked configuration without any legal access. An easement is therefore created “by necessity” to prevent the land-locking. An adverse easement by necessity would also be covered by an owner’s title insurance policy.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Another Expansion Of Massachusetts Landlord Liability

In yet another case demonstrating Massachusetts’ inhospitable legal environment towards residential landlords, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman has ruled that an owner of a mixed used residential – commercial building is “strictly liable” for a drunk tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail. The 17-page ruling is Sheehan v. Weaver, and is embedded below. The imposition of strict liability, sometimes called absolute or no-fault liability, makes landlords 100% liable for the injuries of tenants where there is a building code violation, regardless of whether the tenant was equally at fault for the accident. This is a troubling ruling and another reason supporting the notion that Massachusetts is landlord unfriendly!

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. One of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. There was evidence that Sheehan was intoxicated, however, 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 plaintiff’s own negligence. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages.

Building Code Violation At Issue

The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict (100%) liability for any personal injuries caused by any building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The landlord argued that the primarily residential structure was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. But Judge David D. Kerman disagreed:

“[T]he structure in this case may well be at the outer margin of the class of structures that fall within the ambit of the term ‘building’ in the strict liability law,” wrote Kerman. “However, it is my opinion that the mixed residential-commercial four-unit non-owner-occupied structure in this case is ‘commercial’ and ‘public’ enough to fit within the term ‘building’ in section 51.”

The imposition of strict liability resulted in the landlord being hit with the full amount of the $242,000 judgment with no reduction for the tenant’s comparative negligence due to his intoxication. Ouch.

Commentary: Bad Decision

As I stated to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, this is a troubling ruling. The Building Code provision, passed in the late 1800′s, was clearly intended to cover structures with a distinctively commercial nature, i.e., “public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishing or building.” The law was not intended to cover a predominantly residential apartment building with commercial/retail on the ground floor, in my opinion.

This ruling will now expand liability for residential developers who have built quite a number of mixed-use residential projects in the last few years. This decision can be read as providing strict liability for anyone injured due to any type of building code violation, however minor. Property managers and commercial insurers should be aware of this ruling, and ensure that there are no building code issues which could cause harm to tenants.

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.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Sheehan v. Weaver

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Judge Rules That Occupy Movement Protesters Are Common Trespassers

Today, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Frances A. McIntyre issued a ruling clearing the way for the eviction of the Occupy Boston protest which has taken over Dewey Square in downtown Boston. Judge McIntyre had originally granted the protesters a temporary restraining order sustaining the protests, but after reviewing evidence and hearing legal argument, she has changed her mind.

For interest to our real estate readers, the Judge balanced the City’s property rights vs. the protesters First Amendment speech rights. The judge ultimately concluded that the “occupation” as practiced by the Occupy Boston protesters — physically taking over the public park from the City and to the exclusion of others — was a classic trespass and not a First Amendment right.

“To the extent that the act of occupation, as defined, communicates, it speaks of boldness, outrage, and a willingness to take personal risk. But the plaintiffs’ occupation of Dewey Square to the effective exclusion of others is the very antithesis of their message that a more just and egalitarian society is possible. It does not send the message the plaintiffs profess to intend.” — Judge Francis McIntyre

Analysis: Sound Decision But Quite Expansive

This is a solid, well-reasoned judicial opinion that may be difficult to overcome on appeal. However, the judge’s reasoning on “occupation” is new and perhaps ground-breaking, so it could be susceptible to a different opinion on appeal. This case will surely make its way up to the Supreme Judicial Court, and we’ll blog about it here of course.

As the judge found, the First Amendment is not absolute. Yes, the protesters have a right to assembly, but that right must be peaceful and not permanent as to constitute a seizure of public land or present a grave public safety risk. The First Amendment, by its own language, protects speech, not physical occupation of public land. That’s called eminent domain.

Furthermore, the possibility of real public safety tragedy is virtually guaranteed at some point the longer this encampment is allowed to fester with its flammable tarps, fire sources, auto batteries, extension cords and no sanitary facilities on site. Most of the protesters were not born for the terrible Cocoanut Grove Fire in 1942. A fire would quickly swallow up the tent camp and kill dozens. Health, sanitary and fire codes were not intended to abridge the protester’s speech rights.

The judge went much further than she had to though, and this is where her reasoning could be challenged on appeal:

 ”Little in the way of expression is outlawed under the United States Constitution, but an act which incites a lawful forceful response is unlikely to pass as expressive speech.”

One need only turn to the Civil Rights Marches in Alabama in 1963 to see the flaw with this argument. The protesters in Alabama, simply by marching, incited a forceful response by the Alabama police and their water guns. Using Judge McIntyre’s reasoning, therefore, the Civil Rights Marches are not protected by the First Amendment simply because they elicited a police response. This is illogical as many expressive marches in turbulent times have resulted in police reaction. It doesn’t make the marches or speech any less entitled to constitutional protection.

I’ve posted the ruling below. What are your thoughts on the legal issues?

Occupy Boston Decision

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Tree Damage At My House, Sudbury MA

It was only 3 months ago I was blogging about fallen trees and downed power lines in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Well, here we go again with the Halloween N’or Easter Storm 2011 with the same questions and answers. As you can see to my right, I woke up to a huge limb across my front lawn, which luckily didn’t snap my lines or hit my house! For those less unfortunate, I will outline the law again.

Who Is Responsible If My Neighbor’s Tree Falls On My Property?

The short answer is that, legally speaking, your neighbor is not liable for a healthy tree falling down during a major storm event. That is considered an “Act of God” for which no one is legally liable (except God of course, but I think he enjoys some type of legal immunity–I’m not sure, I’ll have to research that one). So, you will have to make a claim under your homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage caused by the neighbor’s tree.

As the court stated in the 1983 case of Ponte v. DaSilva:

The failure of a landowner to prevent the blowing or dropping of leaves, branches, and sap from a healthy tree onto a neighbor’s property is not unreasonable and cannot be the basis of a finding of negligence or private nuisance. Of course, a neighbor has the right to remove so much of the tree as overhangs his property. To impose liability for injuries sustained as a result of debris from a healthy tree on property adjoining the site of the accident would be to ignore reality, and would be unworkable. No case has been brought to our attention in which liability has been imposed in such circumstances

On the other hand, if the neighbor’s tree was diseased or decayed, was known to be at risk of falling and the neighbor ignored it, there could be negligence and liability. Either way, if you have homeowner’s insurance, the insurance companies will sort out fault and blame.

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mold_houseApplication of “Discovery Rule” Enables Toxic Mold Claim To Survive Dismissal

Toxic mold is a dangerous condition that can arise in buildings with untreated water leaks and penetration. The most common form of “toxic mold” is Stachybotrys chartarum, a greenish-black mold. It can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint. Growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. Constant moisture is required for its growth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, toxic mold causes upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The CDC also found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.

Roof Leaks Lead To Toxic Mold

According to the August 15, 2011 case of Doherty v. Admiral’s Flagship Condominium Trust (see below), Denise Doherty owned a condominium unit at the Admiral’s Flagship Condominium in Chelsea. (If you are driving into Boston northbound on the Mystic Bridge, these are the condominium units on Admiral’s Hill under the bridge.) In 2004, a roof leak led to ceiling cracks and loosening plaster in Doherty’s unit, and she requested that repairs be made. Any repairs made were either untimely or inappropriate. In February, 2006, Doherty noticed mushrooms and water infiltration on the same threshold and notified the condominium management company. It replied that the threshold was rotted, and required replacement. The management company did a shoddy job repairing the damage.

A month later a mold remediation company found hazardous mold in unsafe levels in Doherty’s unit caused by water infiltration and chronic dampness. Following this discovery, the condominium management promised to repair the leaks, and that the mold would be removed. A mold remediation was attempted, but failed, and mold remains in the unit. In 2008, Doherty’s doctor ordered her to vacate her unit due to the presence of the mold. Although Doherty has continued to request repairs of the leaks and chronic dampness, and a full remediation of the mold, no further action has been taken. She filed suit against the condominium and its manager on February 13, 2009, claiming that due to the defendants’ failure to repair, she has suffered severe, permanent health problems, lost income, loss of her personal property, and loss of the value of her condominium unit.

Limitations Period Begins When Toxic Mold Symptoms First Arise

Doherty’s personal injury claims are governed by a 3 year statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is the time period set by law by which a person is allowed to file a lawsuit. If you sleep on your rights, you lose them.

The condominium claimed that the stopwatch for Doherty’s claims started in 2004 when the water leak occurred, and that she filed her lawsuit 2 years late. The lower court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Appeals Court overturned that ruling, holding that under the “discovery rule” the statute of limitations for a toxic mold claim starts when the injured person becomes aware of the existence of toxic mold through investigation or some physical manifestation of being exposed to toxic mold, such as respiratory symptoms, asthma and the like. In Doherty’s case, she first became aware of the toxic mold when the lab results came back in March 2006 which was within the 3 year limitations period. The court reasoned:

We agree with the foregoing cases that without some indication of a hazardous contamination, the plaintiff could not have been aware that she was being exposed to toxic mold, regardless of when the leak began. Contrary to the defendants argument, it is not a certainty that all water infiltration will eventually evolve into toxic mold. To conclude otherwise would encourage, and possibly even require, a plaintiff to preemptively file suit the moment water starts to infiltrate a dwelling or other building, before any mold or mold-related injury has even occurred.

According to the judges themselves, this decision is the first Massachusetts appellate case dealing with the statute of limitations for toxic mold, so it’s quite important. The case will make it easier for toxic mold victims to sue wrongdoers in state court. The case also highlights the importance of addressing water leaks in condominiums quickly and professionally. If the condominium management had properly dealt with the roof leaks in the first place, perhaps Ms. Doherty would not have been exposed to toxic mold in the first place!

Doherty v. Admiral’s Condo Case

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Ice-slip-drinkProperty Owners Need To Clear Snow & Ice After Storms

As I was slipping and sliding in the first real snow yesterday, this blog got a spike in traffic about Massachusetts snow removal law. Back when we were sunning in 80 degree weather, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overruled 125 years of snow removal law and announced a new rule of law that all Massachusetts property owners are legally responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property. The old rule was that owners could leave natural accumulations of snow and ice intact and escape liability for slip and falls. No longer.

The case is Papadopoulos v. Target Corp. and can be read here. You can read my prior post on the case here.

Impact To Massachusetts Property Owners: Shovel Early & Often

What this change in Massachusetts snow removal law means for all property owners, both residential and commercial, is that they need to be extra vigilant after snow and ice storms, and clear areas in which the public and visitors have access–early and often. Whether a property owner takes reasonable steps in removing snow and ice will be determined by judges, juries and later cases on an individual basis. If you cannot clear the snow and ice, hire a private company to do it.

Important: speak with your insurance agent about increasing the limits of your liability coverage. I recommend Nadine Heaps at Purple Ink Insurance out of Ashland, MA.

Read More: Shoveling Ruling May Face First Test–Boston Globe (12.25.10).

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Ice-slip-drink

High Court Overrules 100 Years of Massachusetts Snow Removal Law

In a much anticipated ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overruled 125 years of legal precedent and announced a new rule of law that all Massachusetts property owners are legally responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property. The case is Papadopoulos v. Target Corp. and can be read here.

Rejecting the old common law rule that property owners could simply leave naturally accumulated snow and ice untreated and escape liability, the SJC held that all Massachusetts property owners must remove or treat snow and ice like any other dangerous condition on property. Justice Ralph Gants reasoned that “is not reasonable for a property owner to leave snow or ice on a walkway where it is reasonable to expect that a hardy New England visitor would choose to risk crossing the snow or ice, rather than turn back or attempt an equally or more perilous walk around it.’’ Now for some frequently asked questions about the new law.

I am a landlord. How long do I have to shovel snow and ice on my rental property?

There is no clear cut answer to this question, and juries and courts will ultimately decide what is reasonable. The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 12 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

My lease states that the tenant is responsible for snow shoveling. Will that protect me from liability?

Probably not. A person who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors. The landlord may bring a claim for contribution/indemnification against the tenant.

I live in Boston, and I heard I have to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house after a storm. Is that true?

Yes. On top of their added responsibilities, property owners in several Massachusetts communities, including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester, are required by local ordinances to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. The City of Boston mandates clean sidewalks within 6 hours of a storm; Worcester is 12 hours. For towns and cities without municipal-owned sidewalks, sidewalks remain the property of the abutting owner, and must be cleared by those owners.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?

You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable. Get back out there and spread Ice-melt!

If you have additional questions, please ask them in the comment forms below!

ResourcesCity of Cambridge Snow Removal PolicyCity of Boston Know Snow Fact Page

Read More: Shoveling Ruling May Face First Test–Boston Globe (12.25.10).

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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