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Recent SJC Decision Expands Strict Liability for Some Commercial Property Owners

In most personal injury cases, the injured must show that the damage she suffered was due to some intentional or negligent act by another party.  However, in certain situations, the law may impose “strict liability”, which allows liability against a party without evidence of fault.  Traditionally, strict liability has been limited to a small number of situations, such as injuries caused by hazardous activities (such as blasting), harm caused by livestock, and on-the-job injuries that fall within workers’ compensation laws.   Under the doctrine of strict liability, a defendant is liable for all harm that occurs, even where the injured party caused or contributed to the harm occurring.
In April 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) issued a decision in the case of Sheehan v. Weaver, 467 Mass. 734 (2014), which expanded the application of strict liability against certain commercial property owners.  The Sheehan case dealt with an injury that occurred at a mixed-use residential/commercial property.  Notably, the plaintiff sued the property owner under Massachusetts General Law c. 143 § 51, which imposes strict liability on owners of “a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall….manufacturing establishment or building” for any damage caused by a violation of the state building code.    The SJC determined that Section 51 applies strict liability for harm caused by any violation of the state building code.  This decision overruled longstanding precedent which limited strict liability to only certain violations of the state building code relating to fire safety.
The impact of the Sheehan decision is that certain commercial property owners (such as owners of entertainment venues and other properties designed for continued public assembly) will be strictly liable for all injuries resulting from any violation of the state building code.  In light of the Sheehan decision, property owners should (1) increase their efforts to remedy dangerous and/or defective conditions on their property; (2) become familiar with state building codes and ensure their premises are in full compliance; (3) review their insurance coverage to make sure they are adequately insured; (4) review safety and code compliance with tenants; and (5) make sure tenants have adequate liability insurance that also protects the landlord.
If you are a commercial property owner with questions about state building codes, strict liability, or any other legal issues, please contact Attorney Michael P. Doherty, Craig Ciechanowski, or Edward Cannon at Doherty, Ciechanowski, Dugan & Cannon, P.C., for assistance.