New England property owners generally owe members of the public a legal duty of care to maintain safe premises for people using or visiting their property. This responsibility can result in financial liability for injuries suffered by a person while on the premises as a result of the negligence of the property owner. Landlords have a similar duty to maintain safe and habitable premises for their tenants, however, a recently published opinion by the Massachusetts Supreme Court demonstrates that tenants may face an uphill battle when seeking damages for an injury sustained as a result of premises that are negligently maintained by their landlord.
The plaintiff in the recently decided case was severely injured after slipping and falling while crossing an icy pathway outside the home he rented from the defendant. Claiming that the landlord negligently failed to maintain the surroundings, the plaintiff sued for damages on two theories. First, the plaintiff argued that the landlord negligently caused his injuries by failing to safely remove the snow and ice from the driveway and access to the home. After a jury trial on this issue, it was found that that the plaintiff’s own negligence in failing to avoid the fall outweighed the landlord’s negligence, and that the plaintiff was not entitled to relief.
In addition to the negligence claim, the plaintiff made other claims based on contract law, alleging that the landlord violated the implied warranty of habitability of the premises by failing to safely remove the snow and ice from the premises. In a pretrial ruling, the trial judge found that the plaintiff would be unable to pursue this cause of action against the landlord, and the plaintiff was denied relief before the jury addressed the claim. The plaintiff appealed the pretrial rulings to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.