SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 11, 2014

Beverly case sets precedent

Supreme Judicial Court rules on what constitutes a 'building'

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

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SJC Decision: Sheehan vs Weaver by Salem News

BEVERLY — William Sheehan admitted he had a lot to drink that night, two days after Christmas in 2007, when he fell from a third-floor landing outside his apartment on Rantoul Street in Beverly.

As he fumbled with his keys, he leaned against a rotted railing. It gave way, and he fell backward to the ground, leaving him with severe injuries.

Later, a Housing Court jury would conclude that while Sheehan was negligent — his blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit for driving — so were his landlords, David and Jean Weaver. The landlords were ordered to pay him $145,000 for their share, 60 percent, of the negligence.

But the jury went further, finding that under the state building code, the landlords were liable because the property had 18 building code violations. That conclusion was based on a legal theory known as strict liability, and it meant Sheehan was entitled to additional compensation from the landlord.

The Housing Court judge let the verdicts stand.

But yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that 140 Rantoul St., a mixed-use commercial and residential structure, is not a “building” under that section of the building code. Instead, they treated it more like a private residence, despite the presence of a chiropractic office on the first floor. The court, in ruling on the Weavers’ appeal, reversed the part of the jury’s verdict that held the Weavers strictly liable.

The decision, written by Justice Fernande Duffly, concluded that because that section specifically lists types of buildings it covers as “a place of assembly, theater, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building,” structures that are not on that list are not included.

Salem lawyer Louis Muggeo said the decision is bad news for his client, Sheehan, but potentially good news for other plaintiffs.

That’s because the ruling issued yesterday also rejected the argument of the Weavers’ lawyers that the concept of strict liability applied only in cases where someone is fleeing a fire and said that it applies for anyone injured due to a building code violation — at least if it’s in a structure the law considers to be a “building.”

“We’ve lost a battle but won a war,” said Muggeo, a lawyer who handles cases on behalf of injured plaintiffs.

The case had been closely watched by insurance companies and attorneys for both plaintiffs and property owners, as well as the Boston Housing Authority, and a number of “friend of the court” briefs were filed in the case arguing one side or the other.

A number of attorneys who represent developers and insurance companies had argued that expanding the concept of strict liability beyond the types of buildings specifically named in the law would leave property owners too vulnerable, especially in the increasingly popular mixed-use residential and commercial developments that have been springing up all over Massachusetts.

Sheehan, a pool maintenance worker, suffered head, back and other injuries in the fall. A neighbor in the second-floor apartment heard him stumbling, dropping his keys, and then, moments later, loud groans.

Muggeo said Sheehan has recovered and returned to work.

He will get to keep the portion of the jury’s verdict for his landlords’ negligence, $145,000 plus interest.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.