Supreme Judicial Court rules commercial landlord not liable for

Supreme Judicial Court rules commercial landlord not liable for

Eric Berkman

(This article was originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Boston, another Dolan Media publication).

A commercial landlord did not owe a duty of care to a tenant’s employee who was injured when he fell down a defective stairway in the landlord’s building, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

The defendant landlord argued that, unlike residential landlords, commercial landlords could not be held liable for injuries on their premises unless they exercised control over the area in question or the injury happened in a common area.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed, affirming a trial judge’s grant of summary judgment for the landlord.

Clarifying the law

Thomas R. Murphy, who represented the defendants, said the decision would clarify the extent of a commercial landlord’s liability to third parties entering its property.

Plaintiffs have asserted and tried – and liability insurers have sometimes defended and settled – these cases, and both have done so with no clear direction from the court, Murphy said. So it’s going to obviate some of the claims practice and allow more guidance for lawyers (who) are handling these cases.

Murphy also brushed off assertions that the decision would basically give commercial landlords the go-ahead to rent out unsafe spaces.

Commercial landlords are not in the same position as residential landlords, mostly because there is a commercial tenant in there who has insurance and whose employees are presumably covered by workers’ compensation, Murphy said. It isn’t as though there’s a trap out there for unsuspecting and unwitting plaintiffs who will go uncompensated.

Joseph C. Borsellino, who represented the injured employee, said the ruling could potentially block thousands of workers from receiving full compensation for injuries stemming from structural defects in the workplace.

This decision precludes tort recovery for all employees of commercial tenants, which are the majority of workers in Massachusetts, he said. If they have workers’ compensation, they can’t sue their employers, so the only other party they’d otherwise be able to recover from is landlords.

Treacherous steps

Defendant Florence Byron and her sister, Joanne, operating as Byron & Byron, owned a commercial building in Wareham, Mass.

The sisters executed a lease with a small silkscreen-printing company called Gateway Graphics and Awards. The lease provided that Gateway would have exclusive control of the leased premises, the entire building. Gateway would also be obligated to maintain the inside and outside of the building.

In January 2000, Gateway employee Robert Humphrey fell down a set of stairs when he was going to the basement to get some supplies. He suffered severe injuries to his right hand, which required numerous surgeries and left him with little use of the hand. The stairs were wobbly, had no railing and had low ceiling clearance.

Humphrey sued the defendants in 2002, claiming that they had a duty to maintain the premises, knew or should have known that the stairs posed a danger and were negligent in maintaining the premises.

Superior Court Judge Paul E. Troy granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that commercial landlords had no duty to maintain their premises beyond what they agreed to under the terms of their lease.

No extension of liability

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that its 1980 decision in Young v. Garawacki – which gave residential landlords duty of reasonable care toward anyone legitimately on their property – extend to landlords who rent to small businesses.

Even a small commercial tenant like Gateway would have incentive to make repairs and maintain an orderly and productive business, according to the judge.

Copyright 2006 Dolan Media Newswires

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