No Strict Liability For Residential Landlords in Massachusetts

Is a Massachusetts landlord responsible for defects in residential property notwithstanding the tenant’s comparative negligence? That is, if there is a defect in a residential unit, is the landlord responsible no matter how the tenant is injured? In a case that came down from the Courts this past month, a critical decision was made as to how these questions will be answered.

This case arises from serious personal injuries sustained by a tenant who sued his landlord after he fell three stories onto the asphalt pavement after leaning against a guardrail on the porch of his apartment. In the case, Sheehan v. Weaver, 467 Mass. 734 (2014), there was evidence that the guardrail was defective and in violation of the housing code. The tenant was intoxicated which led the jury to find him 40% at fault; the landlord was 60% at fault because of the defective guardrail. This was on the negligence claim against the landlord.

Strict Liability In Landlord Tenant Law

However, there was a second claim, for strict liability. The jury found that the landlord was also responsible under the strict liability claim; under that claim, there would be no reduction for the tenant’s percentage fault. This finding was partially based on the fact that the housing court trial judge reasoned that because there was a commercial unit on the first floor, it was a mixed residential and commercial building, and the jury could consider strict liability.

It was this second, strict liability claim, that was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. The SJC held that the Massachusetts Building Code does indeed provide for strict liability in commercial buildings, however, the Building Code does not apply to injured victims in landlord tenant residential buildings. That is, a residence is not where “a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment or other purposes” which, according to the SJC, is what the legislature envisioned when they passed the strict liability law.

Massachusetts Residential Landlords

While landlords need not worry about being responsible for strict liability in residential property, evidence of violation of a building code will still be admissible in evidence at trial to prove that the landlord was negligent. Furthermore, the implied warranty of habitability protects tenants because it says that no mater what the lease includes or excludes, the law implies that the residential unit will be free of “latent (or patent) defects in facilities vital to the use of the premises for residential purposes” for the duration of the lease.

Hire An Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer

If you or a loved one are injured in a residential or commercial building, you should retain the legal services of an experienced injury attorney. The law, as you can see from the way the Supreme Judicial Court acted in this case, can eliminate claims that are submitted. In this case, the attorney had submitted two counts to the jury, so even though the injured tenant ultimately lost on the strict liability claim, he won on the negligence claim.

Attorney Neil Burns has represented victims of landlord liability since 1985. Call for a free consultation.

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