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Homeowners' Liability for Wrongful Death: New Massachusetts Case Law

Homeowners who are considering having work done to their homes should ensure that all necessary permits are secured, and that anyone working on the home is adequately qualified. Failure to do so may have perilous results—as was the issue in a recent wrongful death case decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In the case, Almeida v. Pinto, homeowners hired the decedent, the brother of an acquaintance to repair the siding on their home, which had blown off during a hurricane. The decedent was not a licensed contractor, nor did he hold himself out to be one; however, his brother told the homeowners that siding was one of the types of jobs he performed. The homeowners agreed to have the decedent perform the job for the low amount of $200. The decedent showed up without significant protective equipment and began the job. Unfortunately, his ladder slipped, and the decedent plunged down, hitting his head on the homeowners’ iron fence and then the concrete floor. The decedent was in a coma for five days before succumbing to his injuries.

The decedent’s widow sued the homeowners for wrongful death, alleging that they were negligent and breached a duty of reasonable care to the decedent, causing his death. At trial, the court ruled for the defendants on Summary Judgment. The plaintiff appealed.

The Appeals Court first held that the homeowners did owe a duty of reasonable care to anyone who was lawfully on their property, which included the defendant. The court then reviewed whether any of the plaintiff’s several contentions amounted to a breach of that duty.

First, the plaintiff claimed that the homeowners should have provided safety equipment to the decedent. The court disagreed, holding that where the decedent claimed he had done the type of siding work in question before, the homeowners had no duty to ask whether he possessed the necessary equipment to do the job. “There is no evidence from which a fact finder could infer that in offering to do the job the decedent gave any indication to the homeowners that he did not already possess or have access to the necessary equipment, that he expected them to provide it, or that he needed help to buy or otherwise obtain it,” the court stated.

The plaintiff next claimed that the low price of the job itself was a breach of the duty of care, and that the homeowners should have known that the job could not be done safely at such a low price. “Homeowners are routinely solicited for the performance of repair and maintenance services. They routinely seek the lowest price, and service providers routinely compete on price,” the court explained, again disagreeing with the plaintiff. “There is no evidence in the record that a person who already owned the equipment necessary to perform the job safely could not have done the job for $200, or that a reasonable homeowner would have known that.”

The court, however, agreed with the plaintiff that the defendants’ failure to obtain a building permit constituted a breach of the duty of care. “The regulations in the State Building Code…evince an intent to protect workers from unsafe working conditions. We therefore will assume without deciding, as the defendants appeared to concede at argument, that, assuming a building permit was required for this work, and assuming it was the homeowners' duty to ensure that one was obtained, the homeowners' duty of care included a duty to obtain such a permit, and that, as they did not even apply for one, there was a breach of that duty,” the court held.

However, though a breach of duty existed, the court also held that the element of causation was not proven by the plaintiff. “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, there is insufficient evidence in the record to support a jury inference that any negligence of the defendants in failing to apply for a building permit in this case was a cause in fact of [the decedent’s] death,” the court noted, holding that any contention by the plaintiff that the process of securing a building permit would have prevented the death from occurring.

If you have any questions about issues involving tort law, negligence, or other injuries, you should contact a competent attorney licensed to practice law in Massachusetts. Our experienced professionals may be able to work on your behalf. Please contact our offices at your earliest convenience by phone at 978-225-9030 or complete a contact form on our website, and we will respond to you as early as possible.

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