Massachusetts Premises Liability: Building Code Violations

Massachusetts, like all states, has developed a complex and detailed building code. Building codes have been used over time to regulate standards for keeping buildings safe, creating minimum standards that all building owners must meet in order to stay in business.[1] In Massachusetts, building codes cover a number of different topics including regulations for energy usage, installation of fire sprinklers, smoke detectors, and even emergency fire escapes.[2] In addition, Massachusetts provides separate building codes for structural issues, mechanical systems, electrical systems, energy issues, elevators, and even an accessibility code.[3] Further, the state does more than just provide the codes for building owners to follow, the legislature has provided a means for enforcing the code and punishing violators.[4]

According to Massachusetts law, building codes are enforced through inspections by a local inspector.[5] The inspector is charged with the duty of examining buildings in the district or area he is assigned, including buildings that are partly or completely owned by the commonwealth.[6] If an owner, lessee, or possessor in control of a piece of property fails an inspection or in some way violates the building code, he will be liable to any person injured on the property for damages caused by the violation of the code.[7] In addition to providing a civil remedy for those injured due to violations of the building code, the law provides that an owner can be criminally liable if, after 30 days following a written notice, the property owner refuses to fix the code violation.[8]

It is not uncommon for customers, tenants, or guests on a property to be injured due to a serious violation of the building code. Violations can be dangerous for all who enter the building, and can provide for difficulty during an emergency situation. When bringing a case against a property owner for harm due to a violation of the building code, a plaintiff must pursue a negligence case.[9] In order to show negligence, a plaintiff must show four elements.[10] First, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owned the plaintiff a duty of care.[11] As the building code itself suggests, all property owners owe a reasonable duty of care to those that enter their property, meaning the minimum standards set out by the building code.[12] Second, the plaintiff must show that the defendant breached that duty of care.[13] In order to prove this element, the plaintiff can show either that the defendant did so through a specific act or that the defendant did so through a failure to act.[14] For example, if a plaintiff was injured because fire sprinklers were not installed, the plaintiff could either show that the defendant deliberately kept the sprinklers from being installed properly or that the defendant purposefully shut the sprinklers off. In contrast, the plaintiff could also meet this element simply by showing that the defendant knew or should have known the sprinklers weren’t working, but didn’t fix them. Third, the plaintiff must show that the breach of duty by the defendant caused the harm to the plaintiff.[15] Finally, the plaintiff must show that he or she suffered actual harm.[16] If a plaintiff can show these elements, the property owner could be liable for all of the damages incurred as a result of his violation of the building code.[17]

[1] Massachusetts Building Codes, Reed Construction Data,

[2] Massachusetts Building Codes, supra note 1.

[3] ALM GL ch. 143, § 3L-N.

[4] ALM GL ch. 143, § 3A.

[5] 143, § 3A.

[6] 143, § 3A.

[7] ALM GL ch. 143, § 51.

[8] 143, § 51.

[9] Daryl J. Lapp, Premises Liability in Massachusetts: The Evolution of Foreseeability, 29 New Eng. L. Rev. 33.

[10] Connor Fallon, PREMISES LIABILITY: Breaking News: It Snows in Massachusetts and Snow is Slippery. Why Massachusetts Should Adopt the Storm-in-Progress Rule, 34 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 579.

[11] Lapp, supra note 9.

[12] ALM GL ch. 143, § 3-51.

[13] Lapp, supra note 9.

[14] Lapp, supra note 9.

[15] Fallon, supra note 10.

[16] Fallon, supra note 10.

[17] Fallon, supra note 10.

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