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Massachusetts Appeals Court Reviews Jury Instructions for Premises Liability Case

A large number of premises liability cases arise from situations like slip and falls or hazardous passages. In both of these situations, the owner or manager of a property or business is liable when she or he fails to exercise reasonable care for the safety of the invited public. A recent Appeals Court case, Wess v. Butterworth (14-P-1790), addresses a different type of premises liability case. Here, the court assessed whether the jury instructions were an adequate reflection of the law that creates a duty for landlords to use reasonable care to guard against the foreseeable wrongful and criminal acts of third parties. In this case, the injured man was stabbed by an estranged friend who entered the building without authorization. The injured man alleged the landlord was negligent because the apartment building doors had locks but no peepholes, intercom, or buzzer system to help identify anyone on the other side of the door.

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The injured man and his wife filed suit against the landlord of the property, complaining of serious physical and psychological injuries. The case proceeded all the way to trial, where the jury found that the landlord had been negligent, but her negligence was not the proximate cause of the harm to the plaintiffs. The verdict returned was ultimately in favor of the defendant, and the injured man and his wife appealed. On appeal, the couple argued that the judge erred by not giving a requested instruction regarding the definition of proximate cause and superseding cause.

The requested instructions included a recitation of the law described above – that the failure of the landlord to use reasonable care to guard against the foreseeable wrongful and criminal acts of third parties may result in a breach of the duty to exercise reasonable care. The appellate court agreed that the proposed instructions reflected the law and could even have included the established law that the specific criminal act did not need to be foreseeable, just the type of crime. The appellate court determined that the supplemental instruction given to the jury accurately described proximate causation and went on to charge that the injured man did not have to foresee the exact manner in which the harm occurred, but the harm he suffered must have been a natural and probable consequence of the defendant’s negligence.

The appellate court felt that, read together, the instructions adequately provided the jury with a correct statement of law, even though they did not mention that the harmful action of a third party could be a “criminal act.” The court also determined that since this was properly covered by the trial court, there was no need to assess whether an error occurred because of the additional absence of describing the stabbing as an “intervening event.” The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the lower court, and the verdict for the defendant landlord was upheld.

West shows how premises liability cases can become challenging and intricate. The Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at Karsner & Meehan have the experience you need to assist you with your case. If you’ve been injured in a store or an apartment complex, contact our office today for a free, confidential consultation at 508.822.6600.

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Rear-end Collision Appellate Case Helps Illustrate Burden of Proof Considerations in Massachusetts Personal Injury Cases, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, February 3, 2016