To a layman, the case might sound simple: A guy climbs stairs to his apartment, but leans on the guardrail, which breaks and sends him plummeting to pavement below, resulting in serious injuries - and a lawsuit against his landlords.
But in a decision today, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled his landlords are not liable for his injuries under a state law mandating compliance with the state building code - because the building is not a building as defined by that law.
William Sheehan, who fell from the top of an exterior staircase to his apartment on the second floor of a mixed-use building, will still get to collect something from landlords David and Jean Weaver, because a jury found that even aside from the state law, they were negligent due to a variety of code violations found after the fall.
But the state's highest court ruled that the word "building" in the state law that calls for penalties for violating the state building code only applies to buildings where large numbers of the public might congregate, such as a theater, not the second floor of a two-story building with three apartments and no accommodations for the general public.
The law specifically refers to "a place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building." Sounds clear, no? But the court ruled that because "building" is a more general term than "theatre" or "factory," it only refers to the more specific examples listed earlier in the sentence, not to structures not specifically mentioned in the sentence. It's all covered under a legal principle known as ejusdem generis for dealing with lists of things in laws.
The court noted this case is not the first time this specific law has given courts conniptions.
And while it didn't ultimately help Sheehan, the court rejected an argument by the landlords that they should not be held liable under the law because past court cases held the law only applied to violations of building codes related to fire escapes and exits. The court tossed that interpretation for the future, saying that while past rulings said the law should continue the same basic idea of a predecessor law, which did refer only to fire regulations, the current law, passed in 1972, only mentions "the state building code," and says nothing about fire codes.
- Complete ruling, William Sheehan vs. David B. Weaver and another