A recent decision by a court in Massachusetts caused a stir: Evidently, drunken tenants who fall through guardrails in residential buildings are due full compensation for injuries received.

In the case, Sheehan v. Weber, the judge ruled that the landlord was “strictly liable” for the injuries sustained by the resident. Meaning, the landlord is 100% liable when there is a building code violation, even if the tenant was partly at fault.

The tenant, William Sheehan, fell through the porch guardrail and fell several stories onto the asphalt below, sustaining serious injuries. While there was evidence that Sheehan was intoxicated, the guardrail was defective and violated building code.

The four-day trial ended in the jury finding the landlord “strictly liable” for the tenants injuries. The bill amounted to $242,000 in damages. Perhaps more hopeful, the jury only partly found the landlord guilty of negligence, awarding the tenant $145,000 after a 40% reduction for his own negligence. 

I wasn't there, but it strikes me as odd this wouldn't be the other way around. The landlord should have kept up the railing. In that way, he was negligent. But, the tenant wouldn't have fallen off the railing and injured himself if he wasn't drunk. It just seems a bit backwards - until, of course, you consider the law the landlord was held to. 

The landlord, who owned the building with three residential apartments above a commercial establishment, was found “strictly liable” under The Building Code Provision, written in the late 1880’s. 

As Richard Vetstein, of the Vetstein Law Group, writes, the code “was clearly intended to cover structures with a distinctively commercial nature, i.e., "public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building." The law was not intended to cover a predominantly residential apartment building with commercial/retail on the ground floor, in my opinion.”

Sound opinion.

Vetstein continues to say that the ruling will crank up the amount of liability for owners of mixed-use developments, and could be interpreted “as providing strict liability for anyone injured due to any type of building code violation, however minor.” 

Landlords in Massachusetts should take head of this ruling — especially those who own mixed-used developments. Liability insurance, or other risk-limiting strategies, are useful in states where juries make it a habit of siding with drunken tenants.

jhuseman@housingwire.com
@JessicaHuseman