Massachusetts Injury Lawyer Alert: Supreme Judicial Court Expands Commercial Landlord Liability

In a case of first impression, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that the provisions of G.L. c. 186,  § 19 apply to commercial leases, and accordingly, a commercial property owner may be liable for personal injuries on the premises after receiving notice of a defect if proper repairs are not made. The property owner may be liable even if the tenant is in possession of the entire premises, if the injury is not in a common area, and if the tenant is responsible for repairs under the lease. 

The plaintiff operated a tanning salon in a single-story building which she leased from the defendant real estate trust. In 2000, the plaintiff sent a certified letter to the trustees complaining of leaks and cracks in the ceilings around the skylights. On a particularly wet day, the plaintiff was placing buckets to catch the dripping water. She looked up to the skylight, and at that moment a piece of plaster fell into her eye. She fell and suffered injuries. 

At the close of the evidence in the trial the Superior Court judge granted the defendant's motion for a directed verdict. The judge ruled that G.L. c. 186,  § 19 only applied to residential leases; that the plaintiff had not contracted for repairs; and that there was no gross negligence in the previous gratuitous repairs of the roof. The plaintiff appealed. 

The SJC, in an opinion by Justice Gants, reversed. The court found that nothing in the words of the statute itself, and nothing in the legislative history, which would exclude commercial landlords from the requirement of the statute. The court ruled the strictures of § 19 were not inconsistent with the common law, which imposes burdens only if (1) the landlord contract to make repairs and makes them negligently or (2) if the defect is in a common area or other appurtenant area over which the lessor has some control. § 19 only applies if the landlord has received the required notice of the unsafe condition.  The trial judge's rulings on the common law claims of the plaintiff were affirmed, and the matter was remanded for trial on the § 19 only.

The case is Bishop v. TES Realty Trust, SJC-10696 (March 1, 2011).     

Suggested Practice Pointers:

The court's ruling presents issues for commercial tenants, their guests, and for commercial landlords. 

If you represent a person injured on commercial premises, you should include discovery questions about written notice from the commercial tenant to the landlord to determine whether liability exists under G.L. c. 186, § 19.

If you represent a commercial tenant, you should advise the tenant to give prompt written notice to the lessor of any defect on the premises which creates an unsafe condition.

If you represent commercial property owners, you should recommend that your clients seek appropriate security, such as being named as an additional insured, on general liability insurance policies. You should also recommend that they promptly attend to and remedy any unsafe condition on the premises for which they have received written notice, even if the area is under the control of the tenant. Your client should be able to recoup the costs from the tenant after the repairs are made.

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