Building Code Violations May Result in Strict Liability

The Supreme Judicial Court yesterday issued an important decision for victims who suffer personal injuries in public buildings, holding that building code violations that cause injury will automatically result in liability for the owner or controller of the property. The SJC’s decision in Sheehan v. Weaver (4/10/2014) overruled a 1999 case, McAllister v. Boston Housing Authority, 429 Mass. 300 (1999), which had limited the owner’s liability to violations relating to fire safety. The Court concluded that there was no statutory or logical basis for that restricted interpretation, which had been carried over from a previous version of the statute.

Sheehan arose out of an accident that occurred at a three-story, mixed-use building in Beverly, where the ground floor was occupied by a chiropractor’s office and the top two floors contained residential units. The plaintiff was injured when, en route to his third-floor apartment by way of an exterior staircase, he leaned against a railing which broke and sent him tumbling to the ground below. The evidence at trial established multiple building code violations involving the strength, height and condition of the railing, which the jury determined caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

In addition to ordinary negligence claims, the plaintiff also alleged that the building code violations imposed strict liability on the defendants under G.L. c.143 §51, the theory of statutory liability assuming great significance when the jury found the plaintiff 40% comparatively negligent—a reduction which presumably would not apply to the statutory claim. The defendants contended, based on McAllister, that because the violations did not involve fire safety, they were not liable under the statute.

After carefully analyzing the history of the statute and its various amendments, as well as the evolution of the decisional law, the SJC concluded that there was no basis to limit the application of c.143 §51 to fire safety violations. Thus, the Court ruled, ANY building code violation that causes injury will serve as a basis for imposition of strict liability on the owner.

Unfortunately, for the plaintiff, however, he won that battle but then lost the war. The Court went on to examine the precise language of the statute, and to hold that the statutory liability under §51 applies only to buildings in which large numbers of people could be expected to gather. This interpretation would have applied to the chiropractor’s office on the first floor of the building, but not to the landing from which the plaintiff fell, which served only the three apartments and was used only by the tenants and their guests. Even though the defendant landlord derived economic benefit from renting the residential units, that financial gain was insufficient to bring the property within the ambit of the statute, because of the mostly private use of the building.

Nevertheless, the decision has important consequences for owners and managers of commercial, educational, recreational or business properties which serve significant numbers of people. In those cases, the Court reasoned, members of the public would have little opportunity to inspect the property or become aware of code violations. Thus, it is reasonable to impose responsibility on the owner to maintain the property in compliance with the codes, and to be liable for injuries resulting from violations.

Read the SJC’s opinion in Sheehan v. Weaver here.