A Positive New Ruling for Landlords in Massachusetts
A recent decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”) provided a positive ruling for Massachusetts landlords. The full text of the SJC’s decision can be found here: https://law.justia.com/cases/massachusetts/supreme-court/2020/sjc-12761.html

In Goreham v. Martins et al., a tenant filed a lawsuit against his landlord for injuries relating to a slip and fall on an icy driveway adjacent to his apartment. The tenant filed suit against his landlord alleging negligence in removing ice from the driveway, resulting in personal injuries (a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle). Additionally, the tenant alleged that the landlord’s negligence constituted a violation of the implied warranty of habitability and breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment.

After trial, the jury held that the landlord was negligent in failing to properly remove ice from the driveway. However, the jurors also determined that the tenant himself was the primary cause of his own injuries because he could have avoided the icy driveway by using one of the building’s other exits, which were not icy. Because the jury found the tenant more than fifty percent at fault, the tenant was not entitled to recover any damages. The court also entered judgment in favor of the landlord on the tenant’s claims for violation of the warranty of habitability and covenant of quiet enjoyment. The tenant did not dispute the finding of comparative negligence against him on negligence. However, he did appeal the judgments in favor of the landlord on the warranty of habitability and quiet enjoyment claims. In doing so, the tenant argued that where the landlord was found negligent by failing to properly remove snow and ice, the tenant should have succeeded on those claims as a matter of law.

On the warranty of habitability claim, the SJC upheld the trial court’s ruling in favor of the landlord. The SJC explained that the tenant could not seek relief for his injuries under the warranty of habitability because he had an adequate means for doing so through his negligence claim. Also, the SJC noted that the implied warranty of habitability applies only to conditions in the tenant’s “dwelling unit” that make the unit uninhabitable. In this case, where, the injury took place on an outdoor driveway, the icy condition did not make the dwelling unit uninhabitable.

On the tenant’s quiet enjoyment claim, the Court also upheld the trial court’s ruling in favor of the landlord. The SJC explained that because the tenant could have avoided the ice by using the other exit from the building, he could not show that the icy driveway was a “serious interference” with the use and enjoyment of his apartment.

This decision has positive ramifications for landlords in Massachusetts. For many years, the SJC resisted ruling that tenants must prove negligence in order to recover on a breach of warranty of habitability claim when suing a landlord for personal injuries. In this case, the SJC has finally ruled out a contract remedy for tenants who seek to recover for personal injuries that occur on the premises. As a result, tenants may not assert claims for both common law negligence and breach of the warranty of habitability in personal injury claims. Going forward, tenants are limited to suing for negligence. This is helpful to landlords because the landlord may assert affirmative defenses such as comparative negligence, and where the tenant’s own degree of negligence exceeds that of the landlord, the tenant’s recovery is barred (as occurred in this case).

Finally, The SJC did not extend the same reasoning to the tenant’s claim for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. On that claim, the SJC ruled that while a finding of negligence must be made before a tenant could recover, the tenant’s comparative negligence is not a defense. In this case, however, the landlord prevailed on this claim because the court ruled that the temporary presence of ice on the driveway did not constitute a serious interference with the tenancy.

If you have questions regarding this decision or any other landlord/tenant law issues, please contact Steven D. Weil, sdw@ddcrlaw.com or Andrew M. Kepple, amk@ddcrwlaw.com; or call us at 508-541-3000.

This blog is for informational purposes only.  It should not be considered legal advice.  All those who read this blog should seek the advice of a professional before taking action based upon any information provided herein.

© 2020 Doherty, Dugan, Cannon, Raymond & Weil, P.C.

Steven Weil Attorney MA
Article by Attorney Steven D. Weil

Steven Weil is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully represented clients in both the state and federal courts for more than 30 years. He specializes in civil litigation and domestic relations law.

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