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By: Marc Finkel
In an important development for Massachusetts based residential landlords, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently narrowed the availability of certain claims tenants may bring against landlords for slip and falls arising out of the accumulation of snow and/or ice. In Goreham v. Martins, 485 Mass. 54 (2020), the SJC determined that a tenant may not recover damages from a landlord following a slip and fall on ice under a theory of breach of warranty of habitability. The SJC also clarified that a landlord may not assert comparative negligence as a defense to a claim by a tenant based on the statutory right of quiet enjoyment (M.G.L. c. 186, § 14).
In Goreham, a tenant asserted three claims against his landlord after suffering a significant leg and ankle injury following a slip and fall on ice in the driveway of a home he rented. In his complaint, the tenant alleged that his landlord was negligent in permitting an unreasonable amount of ice to accumulate in the driveway and that the accumulation of ice also constituted a breach of both the warranty of habitability and statutory covenant of quiet enjoyment. Ultimately, a jury in the Northeast Division of the Housing Court found that the tenant was over 50% negligent in causing his own injuries and, accordingly, was barred under Massachusetts law from recovering damages for negligence. Thereafter, the trial judge found that the tenant was barred as a matter of law from seeking personal injury damages under his claim for breach of warranty of habitability. The trial judge also determined that the landlord could assert comparative negligence as a defense to the tenant’s claim for statutory quiet enjoyment and that the tenant was barred from recovering such damages because the jury had found him to be more than 50% at fault for his injuries.
The SJC affirmed the trial court’s finding that personal injury damages for slip and fall incidents are not available under a warranty of habitability claim. Specifically, the SJC determined that where a tenant is permitted to bring a direct cause of action for negligence arising out of a slip and fall, a tenant cannot seek similar relief by alleging a breach of the warranty of habitability—which is otherwise a claim that sounds in contract. The SJC also noted that the warranty of habitability generally applies to conditions within the dwelling unit itself rather than the condition of a driveway or other common area. Therefore, the tenant’s warranty of habitability claim in this instance would likely have failed regardless.
As to the tenant’s statutory breach of quiet enjoyment claim, the SJC affirmed the trial court’s judgment on different grounds. The SJC found that comparative negligence is not an available defense to the statutory right of quiet enjoyment, because a landlord can be subjected to both civil and criminal liability for negligent acts committed under the statute. Accordingly, where a tenant’s own negligence cannot be used to absolve a landlord of possible criminal violations and penalties under the statute, a tenant’s own negligence cannot similarly be used to absolve a landlord of civil liability under the statute either. In this case, however, the SJC found that the tenant did not establish an actionable claim for breach of the statutory quiet enjoyment. While the jury may have attributed some fault to the landlord in bringing about the tenant’s injuries, the tenant was unable to prove that such negligence caused a “’serious interference with his tenancy’ by ‘acts or omissions that impair[ed] the character and value of the’ leased premises.” Goreham, 485 Mass. at 68.
Overall, this important decision further clarifies the changing landscape of premises liability law for residential landlords in Massachusetts.
For further information on this case of for inquiries involving hospitality or premises liability law, please contact Marc Finkel at [email protected].