Overruling Earlier Precedent, Massachusetts SJC Holds that Owners/Occupiers of Certain Buildings are Strictly Liable for Injuries Caused by Building Code Violations

On April 10, 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in Sheehan v. Weaver, held that owners/occupiers of certain buildings, as described under G.L. c. 143, § 51, are strictly liable for injuries caused by building code violations. The ruling applies to places of assembly and by the terms of the statute to special halls, public halls, factories, workshops, manufacturing establishments and “building[s]” as construed by the Court. As noted in the decision, “building” as used in the statute is narrowly defined. Single-family homes, owner-occupied two-family homes, and small scale residential structures would not be “buildings” covered by the ruling. The determining factor is not whether property use is “commercial” or “public.” Rather, the focus under the ruling is whether the property at issue is a place at which large numbers of people gather for occupational, entertainment, or other purposes. Such places must have been designed for continuing public assembly.

Sheehan reached its determination by overruling McAllister v. Boston Housing Auth., 429 Mass. 300 (1999), while determining that, considered in the light of earlier legislation it replaced, and given its plain language, § 51 applies to any violations of G.L. c. 143 and the State building code. It is important to note that G.L. c. 143 — as well as the building code — applies to many areas of building construction and operational systems (e.g., fire escapes, elevators, electrical wiring, gas fitting). Accordingly, Sheehan brings the common law into line with the express mandate of the Legislature which in turn will make Massachusetts residents more safe, while easing the burden on those injured due to violations of clear legal and regulatory requirements.

By its terms, Sheehan should apply to places of assembly such as theatres, churches, restaurants, concert and entertainment venues. The Court made clear that certain portions of a building might be subject to § 51 strict liability, when others would not. Thus, unless the entire structure at issue qualifies as a “building” under the Court’s interpretation of the statute, a careful analysis of the area where the injury occurred should take place.

Personal injury Plaintiffs in Massachusetts carry a heavy legal and personal burden. For example, in Sheehan, the Plaintiff was seriously injured when he leaned against a staircase guardrail that broke. Sheehan’s expert testified that the structure at issue had eighteen building code violations, including defects in the condition, height and strength of the guardrail. The SJC’s ruling in Sheehan, which is in accord with the Legislature’s mandate, eases the legal burden on injured Plaintiffs somewhat while providing important public safety benefits. Careful early analysis of the facts of a potential case, and proper pleading and presentation where the facts warrant, will result in such cases turning on causation and damages. Moreover, framing appropriate cases under the strict liability theory, will serve to deter future code violations that put all of us at risk.

If you need assistance dealing with serious injuries, or the death of a loved one, call Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C. to discuss your options.