In an April 10, 2014, decision that expressly overruled its own 15-year old precedent, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that the owner of a building used as a place for a large number of people to gather will be strictly liable for an injury resulting from any building code violation. The case is Sheehan v. Weaver, No. SJC-11395. Prior to Sheehan, the Court had held that the relevant statute, G. L. c. 143, Section 51, provided for strict liability only with respect to violations of the building code pertaining to fire safety.
In Sheehan, the plaintiff lived alone in a third-floor apartment of a three-story mixed-use business-residential structure. The first floor contained a chiropractor’s office, while there were two apartments on the second floor and one apartment on the third floor. The apartment tenants used different entrances than did the patients of the chiropractor. While Sheehan was ascending the exterior staircase leading to an outer door on the second floor landing to enter his apartment, he leaned against the staircase guardrail, which broke. Sheehan fell to the pavement below and was injured. The jury found that the strength, height and condition of the guardrail violated provisions of the building code.
Section 51 provides that:
“The owner, lessee, mortgagee in possession or occupant, being the party in control, of a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building shall comply with the provisions of. . . the state building code relative thereto, and such person shall be liable to any person injured for all damages caused by a violation of any of said provisions.”
The Court concluded that its prior reading of the statute as applying only to violations pertaining to fire safety had been too narrow, and had been influenced by an earlier version of Section 51 that had been explicitly limited to fire safety violations. The Court thus held that: “in accordance with the plain language of the statue, and considered in light of the prior legislation it replaced, Sec. 51 applies to any violations of G. L. c. 143 and the State building code.”
The Court next considered whether the structure involved in this case constituted a “building” within the meaning of the statute. The Court concluded that in a mixed use structure such as the one Sheehan lived in, the part of the structure that was used only by a few tenants living in their own apartments was not a place used for a large number of people to gather, so that part of the structure did not qualify as a “building” for purposes of Section 51.
Sheehan has expanded strict liability exposure for the owners of commercial properties where people are injured on the premises. Such property owners and managers in Massachusetts now need to be more vigilant than ever in ensuring that their properties are kept up to code in all respects.