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Sheehan Case Alters Scope of Strict Premises Liability

Joseph Coupal - Thursday, July 10, 2014

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court alters the scope of M.G.L. ch. 143, § 51, which creates strict liability for injuries resulting from a violation of the Massachusetts Building Code.  In William Sheehan vs. David B. Weaver, et al., 467 Mass. 734 (2014), the SJC did away with an antiquated distinction in the interpretation of M.G.L. ch. 143, § 51, which held that strict liability for injuries resulting from a violation of the Massachusetts Building Code could be found only in circumstances in which a plaintiff was fleeing a fire in a stairwell or egress in premises owned or controlled by a defendant.  The SJC acknowledged that this interpretation was based on an outdated version of the statute, which previously focused on fire safety.  The SJC ruled that building code violations can lead to strict liability for injuries occurring outside of that narrow context.

However, the SJC also ruled that the legislative intent of the statute was to protect large numbers of people from building code violations in publicly-accessed spaces.  In Sheehan, the plaintiff was injured in a strictly residential section of a building which housed both residential condominiums and a chiropractor’s office.  Because the particular area in which the plaintiff was injured was not public or commercial in nature, M.G.L. ch. 143, § 51 did not apply to the plaintiff’s claim.  Thus, the SJC simultaneously expanded and limited the scope of M.GL. ch. 143, § 51.

Pierce & Mandell counsel Paul Hourihan recently invoked the Sheehan case in defeating an attempt by a plaintiff to add a claim for strict liability under M.G.L. ch. 143, § 51 for injuries which allegedly occurred as the result of a code violation in a church basement.  Because the alleged injuries occurred outside of publicly-accessed areas, the Middlesex Superior Court ruled that M.G.L. ch. 143, § 51 did not apply to the church basement and, accordingly, the plaintiff’s claim for strict liability was futile.   Alphonse Womack v. Lifepoint Church, et al., Essex Superior Court, Civil Action No. ESCV2012-02328.


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