Articles Posted in Strict Liability

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA], Massachusetts consumes nearly half of the natural gas used in New England. The majority of the gas is used to generate electricity, but residential customers use more than one-fourth of the state’s natural gas consumption and more than half of the households in Massachusetts rely on natural gas as their primary source for home heating.

Natural gas is marketed as cleaner, more efficient and often less costly for the consumer than alternatives like oil.Natural gas is delivered to these homes and businesses through an infrastructure of pipelines, many of them aging, and leaks are not uncommon. It is the flammability of the gas that makes it a useful fuel source. That same flammability and explosiveness, however, is what can lead to explosions, fires, death, injury and property damage.

It appears that such an event happened in the Massachusetts communities of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence on September 13, 2018. Reportedly more than 80 homes and businesses were impacted and many were seriously damaged by the 60 resultant fires. More tragically, one person is reported dead after debris from a chimney hit the car he was in when a building exploded. At least 25 others were injured in the fires. While it will no doubt take some time to determine the cause and origin of the fires and explosions, reports indicate that federal safety experts will be investigating and that state officials have been looking into the gas supply system operated by Columbia Gas which may have pushed high-pressured natural gas into a low-pressure section of the network. Columbia Gas has been working to address its 8,600 customers in the area. As a result of the incident, 18,000 customers are without electricity and as of the morning of September 14, 2018 road access to the City of Lawrence had been cut off by officials. Many institutions, including schools and the state Courts have been closed.

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.
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