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Premises Liability - Part One

Posted by attorney Benjamin Zimmermann

Premises Liability Accidents of all kinds occur at privately owned homes and businesses. Frequently, accidents are caused by dangerous conditions on the property which, unbeknownst to the person injured, could and should have been remedied prior to the accident. When someone is injured at a private home or a commercial residence, they may feel embarrassed or confused about the accident that happened, and unsure about what remedies, legal or otherwise, are available to address what happened to them.

Premises liability law in Massachusetts, as one might expect, requires businesses and homeowners to maintain their property in a safe condition to avoid injuring people visiting their property. Put simply, this means that the law requires landowners to use reasonable care for the safety of others to remove potentially dangerous conditions on their property, and to warn of any such dangerous conditions if they cannot reasonably be prevented. A landowner who fails to use reasonable care is negligent. What constitutes reasonable care obviously depends on the circumstances. Minimum standards for buildings of all types are contained in the Massachusetts Building Code and Sanitary Code. A violation of these minimum standards is, under Massachusetts law, evidence of liability negligence. Given the age of many Massachusetts buildings, determining which Code provisions apply and whether they have been violated can require consultation with experts on these standards.

These Codes cannot cover every possible dangerous condition on property which could cause injury. Therefore, under Massachusetts law, it is not required to prove a Code violation in order to prove a business or homeowner negligent.

In leased residential property, in addition to the requirement that a landowner use reasonable care, there is a warranty that runs to all lawful visitors to that property. This warranty, known as the warranty of habitability, make it unlawful for a landowner to maintain their property in violation of the Building Code or Sanitary Code. A person injured because of a violation of these codes can bring an action for breach of warranty as well as negligence. This is significant because in a breach of warranty case, an injured person’s own negligence (in, say, failing to see a defect before they encounter it), will not reduce any amounts recovered. In contrast, in a case for negligence, an injured person’s own negligence can in some cases reduce or eliminate the person’s ability to be compensated for their accident and injury.

Thus, when a person is injured at a residential or commercial property as a result of a negligently designed, constructed, or maintained property, the premises liability law does provide a remedy and allows the person to be compensated. That remedy is exercised by bringing a premises liability lawsuit against the property owners and/or the people in charge of maintaining the property. Such lawsuits often become more complex than a simple suit against a property owner. For example, a large grocery chain may lease space from a mall owner which may in turn hire a property manager to upkeep the mall which may in turn hire a subcontractor to repair defects in its walkways, remove snow and ice, or the like. Under Massachusetts law, all four entities are potentially liable for defects on the property. It is important, therefore, that an injured person’s attorney take steps to determine what the legal and contractual relationships are with regard to a piece of property when bringing a claim. Often this cannot be done completely until a lawsuit is filed and documents are reviewed to determine the facts about the ownership and maintenance of the property.

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