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Massachusetts Landlord Liability For Violent Acts By A Third Party
Rental properties can be highly profitable, but they also carry some risks. A significant risk landlords face is the potential for liability when someone is injured on the property. A landlord’s liability for an injury will depend heavily on the circumstances, as seen in the recent case of Belizaire v. Furr.
This case arose after a man was shot and killed at a party in an apartment, and the adminstratrix of his estate filed a negligence action against the landlord. The judge granted a defense motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.
The apartment where the victim was shot was located in a two-family property. While the defendant owned the property, most of the residents were her relatives, her children, and her children’s friends. The defendant testified she had an arrangement with her children to do work at the property instead of paying full rent. Rent payments were “sporadic” around the time of the shooting. While she owned the property, the defendant only had formal, written lease agreements with two previous residents.
One of those residents voluntarily moved out, and the other had been evicted for not paying rent. After that eviction, the defendant made an arrangement for her son’s friend to rent the apartment with roommates. The friend moved in but never found roommates. The defendant did not present any evidence that the friend had paid rent or that there had been an agreement on the amount.
The son and the friend co-hosted a party at the apartment. The son testified that most of the attendees were friends and that the party was not very big. He also testified that he did not know the shooting victim or the two people who came to the party with him.
One of the attendees testified that she did not know either the son or his friend. She said that she was charged to enter the party and that she thought they had also charged people for drinks. She testified there were 40 to 50 people present, with a DJ and large speakers.
During the party, an unknown assailant shot four people. One of the victims died, and his sister filed suit against the landlord as administratrix of the estate. The judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the grounds that there was an oral tenancy and that the defendant therefore had limited control of the premises.
To succeed in a negligence claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant breached a duty of care to the victim, that the breach was the proximate cause of the victim’s injury, that the injury was reasonably foreseeable, and that actual damages were incurred.
The appeals court first considered whether the son’s friend was a tenant. If so, the defendant had limited control over the premises. The motion judge had determined that there was an oral lease agreement between the defendant and the son’s friend. The appeals court noted that Massachusetts law allows a tenancy at will to be created by an oral lease. A tenancy requires a contractual agreement between the purported landlord and tenant and exclusive occupancy by the tenant. Since it is a contractual agreement, a tenancy at will requires consideration. The court noted that the consideration does not have to be a monetary payment, but some form of consideration must exist.
The court found insufficient evidence of consideration here, noting that the parties appeared to anticipate a signed lease and rent payments after the son’s friend found roommates, but that had not happened at the time of the incident. The court found that the consideration issue was a genuine issue of material fact that precluded summary judgment on the grounds of an oral tenancy at will.
There was another issue in this case, though. Landowners are generally not required to protect against the dangerous or unlawful acts of another person, if the dangerous or criminal activities were not known to them. Landlords may be held liable only when the criminal acts were reasonably foreseeable. The appeals court found that this incident was not reasonably foreseeable. The property did not have a history of serious violence There had been no previous gun violence on the property other than a threat with a gun about 10 years earlier. The only other reports of violence were domestic disputes that did not involve anyone related to the case. There was no evidence that the defendant had any relationship to or knowledge of the shooter. The appeals court affirmed the summary judgment.
This case illustrates at least two important points. First, landlords should make efforts to ensure that they are in fact creating a tenancy with the occupants of their property. Doing so can prevent liability for the actions of the tenants and for events that occur on the property. If a tenancy is not created, a court may find that the purported landlord retains control over the premises.
Additionally, this case also shows that a person can only be liable in a negligence action when the injury is reasonably foreseeable. Courts will generally not find that the violent actions of a third party are foreseeable to a landlord unless the landlord has some knowledge that would make the incident foreseeable, such as prior incidents of violence on the property.
If you have been the victim of a premises liability accident in Massachusetts or are a Massachusetts landlord in need of a real estate attorney, the Law Offices of Richard Mucci can assist you. Call (781) 729-3999 to schedule your consultation.