Massachusetts SJC Overrules Fire Escape Limitation When Owners Are Strictly Liable For Injuries Caused By Building Code Violations — Sheehan v. Weaver

On April 10, 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decided on a strict liability case, Sheehan v. Weaver, where an apartment renter fell from a two story apartment staircase when the guardrail broke. Strict liability is a statutory tort that allows a plaintiff to hold a person liable for injuries regardless fault. The question before the court was whether the injured plaintiff could pursue compensation under a strict liability claim for failure to follow building codes. These strict liability cases had previously been barred because of a fire escape limitation.

If you have slipped or fallen on someone else’s property, you might be able to get compensation for your injuries. However, not all slip and fall accidents are equal. An injury can occur in an assortment of places including restaurants, apartments, shopping centers, and other types of private and and public property. Massachusetts laws and statutes have various types of damages you can claim as a result of where and how you received your injury. At the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III, we are Massachusetts premises liability attorneys with the experience, skills, and ability necessary to obtaining recovery for your injuries. We have the knowledge of the various laws and damages claims to get you the compensation you deserve.

Facts Of Sheehan v. Weaver

The case of Sheehan v. Weaver explores the scope of strict liability for faulty stair cases under Mass. Gen. Laws c. 143 § 51, (“§ 51”). In Sheehan v. Weaver, the plaintiff came home after a night of drinking. When climbing the staircase to her third floor apartment, she stopped at the second floor landing and leaned against the guard rail, which broke, causing the plaintiff to fall two stories and suffer severe injuries. She brought a negligence and strict liability claim against the owners of the apartment building.

For the negligence claim, the trial court found awarded the plaintiff $145,000 after reducing the damages by 40% for the plaintiff’s own negligence. The trial court also awarded the plaintiff $242,000 in damages after finding the apartment owners strictly liable under § 51. The apartment owners appealed challenging the strict liability verdict.

Applicable Statutes And Laws

Under, Mass. Gen. Laws c. 143 § 51, (“§ 51”) a plaintiff may be able to bring a strict liability claim against a building owner for injuries caused by violating state building codes under § 51. § 51 defines buildings as “a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.”

Supreme Judicial Court Ruling: Sheehan v. Weaver

Scope Of Strict Liability Under § 51

The defendant’s motion to dismiss is based upon the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ holding in McAllister v. Boston Housing Authority where § 51 only applied to staircases used as a fire escape.

To understand McAllister v. Boston Housing Authority, it is important to know the time line. Prior to 1972, § 51 claims were limited to stairs used as fire escapes. In 1972, the legislature removed the fire escape limitation. However, in 1999, the court ruled in McAllister that the fire escape exception still applied.

In the current case, the court Overruled McAllister holding that a plaintiff could bring a § 51 strict liability claim for injuries incurred in any building defined as being a “a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.”

However, the court did not completely broaden § 51 claims and then went on to define the term building under § 51.

Meaning of Building § 51

While initially in the plaintiff’s favor, the court then turned to the definition of building under § 51. Using the statutory construction ejusdem generis where “general words follow specific words in a statutory enumeration, the general words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature to those objects enumerated by the preceding specific words.” The court found that “a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building” were similar in nature to public places where large numbers of people gathered. Furthermore, the court noted that the purpose of the statute was to protect members of the public who are poorly positioned to determine the safety of a building. An apartment tenant is not included in that understanding of the public.

The court dismissed the strict liability claim holding that, while the fire escape limitation no longer applies, apartment buildings do not fall under § 51 stair case claims.

What You Should Do If You Have Been Injured On Another’s Property

While the plaintiff in Sheehan v. Weaver had her case dismissed, this is a good ruling for future citizens injured when the owners violate § 51 safety codes. A stair case under § 51 is no longer limited to use as a fire escape. However, the building type is limited to the enumerated list or similar public places where large numbers of people gather.

Having an attorney with the knowledge of how Massachusetts’ statutes apply to various types of property will help you get the compensation you deserve. If you have been injured on the property of another, it is recommended that you speak with a local premises liability lawyer.

Local attorney, John C. Manoog III, has extensive experience handling slip and fall claims. For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or contact us online. There is always someone available to talk to you about your case.

Additional Resources:
General Laws: Section 51, The Common Wealth Of Massachussetts

Related Blog Posts:
In Massachusetts, a Building Owner Can Be Liable for the Death of a Patron by Violating Building Safety Codes — Klairmont v. Gainsboro Restaurant, INC, Feb. 26, 2014, Cape Cod Injury Lawyer Blog

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Rules Property Owner May Be Liable for Certain Open and Obvious Hazards — Dos Santos v. Coleta, Nov. 27, 2013, Cape Cod Injury Lawyer Blog

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