Massachusetts Injury Lawyer Alert! SJC Rules on Warranty of Habitability

Case Affirms Judgment for Injured Guest of Tenant

In a landmark premises liability decision today (September 15, 2009), the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a judgment for an injured guest of a tenant at a rental premises, ruling that the warranty of habitability extended to the tort claim of the guest. The plaintiff, Scott, suffered personal injuries when a porch railing collapsed. In its decision, Scott v. Garfield, SJC-10362, the court also affirmed the admission into evidence of the full amount of the plaintiff's medical bills, the trial court's ruling on spoliation, and the instruction by the judge on the possibility of a medical lien. The decision is an important one in all four respects.

With regard to the primary issue, the court found that Scott, who was lawfully on the premises as a guest of the tenant, was able to make a claim in tort for breach of warranty of habitability. The court found that allowing such a claim was consistent with the purposes of the State building and sanitary codes, the Restatement (Second) of Property (Landlord and Tenant), and prior case law which recognized the duty of landlords to protect tenants and their lawful guests. The claim under the breach of warranty provision was not offset for the plaintiff's comparative negligence.

The court ruled that the trial judge properly ruled against the defendant on a question of spoliation of evidence. Shortly after the accident, Scott's lawyer requested that the defendant preserve the railing, which he did. However, the landlord eventually had the columns to which the railing had been attached replaced, and that evidence was discarded by the contractor. The trial judge precluded the defendant from offering evidence about the columns, finding he had negligently allowed the spoliation of the evidence. The SJC found that the ruling was within the judge's discretion, and was supported by the evidence.

The SJC also ruled that the trial judge properly overruled the defendant's objections regarding admission of the full amount of medical bills, instead of what the medical providers were actually paid. The court affirmed the long-standing rule in Massachusetts that evidence of collateral source payments is inadmissible. The court left the door open for challenges to payments provided the defendant makes an evidentiary proffer of what the medical provider actually accepted in payment for the services (which the defendant here failed to do).

Finally, the court affirmed the trial judges instruction on the possibility of a medical lien. The court had instructed the jury, "[I]f the medical, hospital, rehabilitation, or physical therapy expenses were paid by a third party such as a medical insurance company or a health maintenance organization, that party can seek reimbursement from any amount paid from any judgment you may award." This was a proper statement of the lien law, G.L. c. 111, Sec. 70A. The instruction was given in the context of a question from a juror.

Practice Point: Juries need to be informed of the possibility of liens in personal injury cases. Liens include hospital liens, insurance liens, and workers' compensation liens. You should always request an instruction that there may (or may not) be a lien, but if there is, repayment will be required, which is up to the parties and the court after any verdict. The jury should not make suppositions about who may have paid the the plaintiff's bills or other damages, but should make the full award of damages without regard to possibility of insurance payments by others.

For information on choosing a Massachusetts lawyer for premises liability cases, please go to our Premises Liability page.

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