Caused By Violations of the Building Code
This page on building code violations is part of a series on slip-and-fall accidents by the slip-and-fall lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.
Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 143 §51 is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of any victim of a slip-and-fall accident. It imposes strict liability on property owners, in many circumstances, for any injury caused by a violation of the Building Code.
To understand how powerful this law is, you must first understand the legal concept of “strict liability” and how strict liability differs from negligence. In order to pursue a claim for negligence, a person must not only suffer an injury and be able to prove that the injury was caused by the defendant, but must also be able to prove that the defendant was at fault by failing to prevent a harm that would be reasonably foreseeable to a prudent person. So, in a typical car accident case, a negligence claim involves allegations not only 1.) that the plaintiff was injured but also 2.) that the injury was caused by the defendant (as opposed to some other person or thing) and 3.) that the defendant was somehow operating his or her car unsafely, in a manner that could reasonably foreseeably cause harm. Under a regime of strict liability, you must only prove the first two elements. Any sort of fault or carelessness is unnecessary to your case. The defendant will be liable if the plaintiff proves only causation (this particular driver caused the injury) and harm.
Now that you have some grasp of the concept of strict liability, you can understand the power of General Laws Chapter 143 §51. In many situations, including slip-and-falls, G.L. c. 143 §51 provides for strict liability of property owners for any injury caused by a violation of the Building Code. This is incredibly powerful for at least two reasons. One is that violations of the Building Code are (sadly) very common. Two, the Building Code is an incredibly wide-ranging set of regulations. For instance, the Building Code regulates everything from how quickly a revolving door may spin (780 C.M.R. 1008.1.3.1), to how tall a stair must be (780 C.M.R. 1009.6), to the railings or handrails on stairways (780 C.M.R. 1009.11) and the tread depth on staircases (780 C.M.R. 1009.5.1).
As you might imagine though, there are a couple of catches that make it harder to win a slip-and-fall lawsuit by relying on G.L. c. 143 §51 than it would seem at first glance. One obstacle is that many violations of the Building Code are “grandfathered in.” If, say, a defective stairway was in place prior to the adoption of the Massachusetts Building Code in 1975, the defective stairway is probably “grandfathered in,” meaning it is not legally required to conform to the current rules and regulations.
Another obstacle is that strict liability under General Laws Chapter 143 §51 only applies to certain kinds of buildings. It does not apply to a typical private, residential structure. Instead, it applies mainly to structures where, “a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment or other purposes.” Sheehan v. Weaver, 467 Mass. 734, 743 (2014).
Still, despite its limited reach, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 143 §51 is a powerful weapon to wield against the right kind property owner in a slip-and-fall case. Until recently, the law did not get a lot of use because it had been interpreted as applying only to the Building Code’s fire safety regulations. See McAllister v. Boston Housing Auth., 429 Mass. 300 (1999). However, in the 2014 case of Sheehan v. Weaver, the Supreme Judicial Court clarified that Section 51 applies to all building code violations in the right kind of structures, and not merely to fire code violations.
Strict liability is a pretty harsh system. But, from a public policy perspective, one can see why strict liability for injuries caused by violations of the building code makes sense. The Massachusetts Legislature obviously wants businesses to follow the Building Code, otherwise the Legislature would not have bothered making it law.
But it would be very burdensome to keep up a system of building inspection adequate to the task of detecting most Building Code violations. The state simply does not know about most violations and finding most violations would consume a great deal of resources.
Property owners, on the other hand, are likely very aware of Code violations on their property. They are in a much better position to detect and remedy these violations.
What a system of strict liability does is prod property owners to bring their property into compliance with the Code. Otherwise, if someone falls hurts herself on their property, they will lose in court.
So in a sense, strict liability for injuries caused by Building Codes is a compromise. It is a message from the Massachusetts Legislature to businesses basically saying that “We know we can’t catch and fine you for every violation, but don’t think that you can just get away with breaking the Building Code. If you do, and someone injures themselves because of that, then you will pay their bills.”
Many violations of the Building Code can also give rise to liability under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93A, the Consumer Protection Act. This powerful law allows for treble (three times) damages in some cases, as well as attorney’s fees. You can read more about Chapter 93A on our page for the law.
If you have been injured on someone else’s property, and you think the injury might have been caused by a Building Code violation or some other form of negligence on the part of the property owner, you should not hesitate to contact us for a free consultation. We will be able to advise you of your legal rights and what sort of remedies the law might entitle you to.
The Boston slip-and-fall lawyers at THE LAW OFFICE OF ALAN H. CREDE, P.C., hope you found this guide to supermarket slip-and-falls useful. However, you should not rely upon it as a legal opinion. The law changes quite often and the outcomes of many cases turn upon seemingly minor factual differences. If you fell in an accident that you believe was caused by a condition that violated the building code, please contact a personal injury lawyer immediately.
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