Housing Code Violations and Over-Crowding in Boston Student Housing

The fire on April 26, 2013 at 87 Linden Street in Allston, the second serious fire in less than two years on the same block, is a tragic reminder of what can happen with overcrowded, substandard student housing.

The Fire Marshall will now investigate the cause of the Allston fire. In addition, The Boston Inspectional Services Division should examine whether the unit was overcrowded in violation of the Boston Zoning Ordinance, and whether housing codes and accessibility codes were violated. Enforcement of city ordinances is, unfortunately, inconsistent, and usually after the fact. Knowing this, landlords and realty companies frequently violate these ordinances in the name of profits. The victims are often unsuspecting college students. As a result, students, who pay high rents, are subjected to increased risks from their overcrowded housing.

The law in Massachusetts governs how homes must be safely maintained in order to prevent personal injury to occupants of the property. In Boston, zoning ordinances require building owners to declare whether their properties are single-family or multi-family units. In either case, under Boston’s zoning ordinances, under the definition of “family,” no unit may be occupied by more than four unrelated students unless the building meets much stricter building requirements.

It is also generally illegal for a landlord to create bedrooms in basements, and it may be against code to create a bedroom in an attic. No matter how it is configured, every house or apartment must have working smoke detectors throughout the unit.

Once a unit exceeds the four unrelated-occupant threshold, it technically becomes a rooming house, which makes it subject to very strict fire-prevention regulations under M.G.L. c. 148, Sec. 26I and other regulations. For example, a rooming house must have walls and ceilings made from fire-rated materials to slow flames in the event of a fire. Smoke detectors must be in every bedroom,
and must be interconnected. Even more important, every boarding house must have a working sprinkler system. Boarding houses must also meet accessibility guideline and provide multiple means of egress for upper floors, which may include fire escapes.

Real estate brokers and leasing agents share responsibility for student overcrowding and exposure to risk from substandard housing. A quick look at any leasing agent’s website will reveal scores of units available for student occupancy which are intended to house more than four unrelated individuals. Leasing agents collect a single month’s rent, sometimes more, for their services. Since they also take the responsibility to collect signatures on leases, they know exactly how many students will be in the unit. Leasing agents simply cannot claim ignorance of the laws regarding overcrowding.

Who May Be Liable

It is our firm’s opinion that violations of the boarding house rules are evidence of negligence and may create liability for the responsible landlord.
We also believe that knowing and willful violations of the boarding house rules by real estate companies or leasing agents may subject them to liability as well. Violations of these standards may also be violations of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, which may subject landlords and their leasing agents to multiple damages and attorneys’ fees.

Other Cases

Injuries and death from substandard housing may also lead to criminal charges against landlords. For example, in January 2012, two absentee landlords were convicted of manslaughter after a fire in an illegal apartment in Quincy led to the deaths of three tenants. The landlords were accused of wantonly violating building and fire codes.

The question of the enforceability of rooming house regulations is also pending at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In that case, civil claims were brought against a Worcester landlord for violation of the Worcester zoning bylaw. In that city, no more than four unrelated persons can occupy a home. The city brought the violation because there were more than four students in the unit. The decision in that case is expected to be handed down in the next few weeks.

Update: The City of Boston later cited the owner of the two-family structure, Anna Belokurova, for running an illegal rooming house and not obtaining the permits needed to create bedrooms in the basement, according to The Boston GlobeRead more.

Related Articles:

Woman killed, firefighters and occupants injured in raging Allston fire, Boston Herald.

One dead, 15 injured in Allston house fire, The Boston Globe.

Jury finds landlords guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Quincy apartment fire, The Patriot Ledger.

About Breakstone, White & Gluck

Breakstone, White & Gluck of Boston has over 85 years combined experience represented injured clients in Massachusetts. If you or a loved one has been injured, learn your rights. For a free legal consultation, contact us at 800-379-1244 or 617-723-7676 or use our contact form.

Salmonella Outbreak in Rhode Island Now Linked to Death

A salmonella outbreak in Rhode Island now includes at least twenty-one people with severe illness, and one death, according to reports from public health officials in that state. Health officials are investigating another eighteen illnesses to see if they are tied to the salmonella outbreak.

Officials are focused on zeppole and other pastries which were made by Defusco’s bakery in Johnston, Rhode Island. According to news reports, investigators found pastry shells stored in boxes contaminated with raw eggs, and also found that custard used as filling was not being properly chilled.

Investigators have identified the particular strain of salmonella, known as Salmonella heidelberg, as the suspected organism responsible for the illnesses. They are now trying to determine whether the death of the elderly Rhode Island resident was caused by that particular strain.

The investigation into the food poisoning outbreak began on March 25, 2011, after nearly a dozen elderly residents of a Warwick nursing home became sick after eating pastries from Defusco’s bakery. Since March 12, two dozen victims have required hospitalization for severe illness.

Salmonellosis, the disease caused by salmonella infection or salmonella toxins, leads to diarrhea, fever, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Most people recover without treatment, but in the elderly, in infants, or people with compromised immune systems, the disease can be very severe, requiring hospital admission for rehydration and antibiotic treatment to prevent the spread of infection. Severe infections can lead to reactive arthritis and death.

Prevention of salmonella illnesses is straightforward. Food which may contain the bacteria, such as chicken or pork, must be prepared properly to kill the organism and destroy any salmonella toxin. Eggs and milk, and their products, must be properly prepared, handled, and refrigerated. Infections can also occur from contact with reptiles, pet rodents, and tainted fruits and vegetables. Proper hygiene–washing hands before and after handling food–is also a common sense method of reducing the likelihood of food poisoning.

Each year over 140,000 people suffer from salmonella poisoning in the U.S. and dozens die from the illness.

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Beef Products Recalled Due to Possible E. coli Contamination–Brockton, Massachusetts Meat Packer Blamed

A Brockton, Massachusetts meat packaging company has voluntarily recalled over a thousand pounds of ground beef patties and steaks due to possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. People exposed to the contaminated meat have suffered personal injuries.

Crocetti’s Oakdale Packing Company, also known as South Shore Meats, was investigated by Massachusetts and Rhode Island health officials after approximately twenty students at a Plymouth camp became ill following a meal using ground meat traced to the company. The USDA has declared a class I recall, due to the potential for serious illness and death from the O157:H7 strain of E. coli.

This type of bacterial infection usually manifests as diarrhea, which is often bloody, and several days of abdominal cramping. More severe cases may progress to hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), which causes breakdown of blood cells, kidney failure, and sometimes death. Children under five and the elderly are at the highest risk for the severe forms of illness.

Contaminated meats are the most common cause of E. coli O157:H7 infection, but the bacteria may come from other sources, as seen in the recall of prepackaged cookie dough this past June.

Click here for a list of contaminated products.

Safety Tips:  Proper preparation and storage of meat can help to prevent illness. Ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Newly purchased meat and poultry should be refrigerated promptly, as should leftover cooked meat. Proper washing of hands and utensils that touch raw meat is also important, in order to avoid contaminating other food or surfaces with bacteria.

Click here for more information from the USDA.

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Massachusetts Workers Continue to Suffer High Rate of Workplace Death, Injury and Disease

In its annual report on workplace safety, The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) has detailed the high rate of death, injury, and disease which Massachusetts workers continue to suffer. Enforcement and prevention by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is still seen as lacking, and an audit of OSHA  nationwide demonstrated a failure to enforce job safety laws against employers which repeatedly risk injury and death to workers. OSHA is underfunded and understaffed and incapable of completing comprehensive worksite inspections.

According to the MassCOSH report, sixty-six workers lost their lives on the job in 2008. These deaths were caused by transportation accident, falls, commercial fishing, workplace violence, crushing injuries, electrocution, and toxic substances. Falls continued to be a common cause of workplace deaths, and most of these were construction accidents.

In addition to the high rate of death in the workplace, almost 90,000 workers in the private jobs sector (which excludes self-employed and public sector workers) suffered some form of work injury. While Massachusetts did not have the highest rate of workplace injury, the rate of serious injuries and illnesses, resulting in lost time from work, was higher than the national average.

Occupational disease also remains a very serious concern, and the scope of this problem is not completely known. Certain diseases, such as mesothelioa, occupational cancers, work-related asthma, and lead poisoning are tracked, but the diagnoses of these diseases is not always related to the job, even if it was caused by a workplace exposure.

The complete report released by MassCOSH, entitled Dying for Work in Massachusetts, Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces, is available at the MassCOSH website. MassCOSH sponsored Worker Memorial Day at the Massachusetts State House on April 28th.

Breakstone, White & Gluck, a Massachusetts construction accident law firm, is a proud sponsor of the work of MassCOSH, which is making Massachusetts workplaces safer for all, and which is working to increase the rate and quality of workplace safety inspection and enforcement.

New Information in Fatal Gas Explosion in Somerset, Massachusetts

Information uncovered by news teams investigating the fatal gas explosion in Somerset, Massachusetts on February 19, 2009, indicates that damage to a gas main, perhaps from construction activity, may have been a cause of the terrible accident.

Residents in the vicinity of the explosion had reported the smell of gas, and the New England Gas Company was in the area investigating, knocking on doors in the neighborhood. However, within twenty minutes of the arrival of gas company crews, the home of 62-year old Rose Marie Rebello exploded, then erupted in flames. Ms. Rebello and her dog both died, and a firefighter and a utility worker were injured. Homes in the area suffered damage, and hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate. Six homes were rendered uninhabitable, and dozens of others were damaged.

Investigators discovered that a 200-foot long section of the gas main, which was installed over 40 years ago, was “damaged and breached,” possibly by later construction activities. The damage may have been done during the installation of a sewer main and the tie-ins in the neighborhood, though that work was done in the 1970s.

It was the third Massachusetts explosion in three months. One man died in Scituate in December, and another man was seriously injured in January in Gloucester.  This is a sharp increase in the accident rate in Massachusetts compared to the previous ten years. Another man was killed in a gas explosion in his home in Manchester, NH, on February 24, 2009. Aging infrastructure and the need for greater maintenance are probably significant factors in gas explosions.


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Death of 82-Year-Old Woman in MBTA Escalator Accident in Boston Investigated

An 82-year-old woman has died following an escalator accident at the MBTA State Street Station in Boston. According to initial reports, the woman fell on the escalator and her clothing became entangled in the machinery.

The accident is being investigated by the MBTA, the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety, which is in charge of escalator inspections, and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.

According to news reports, the woman, who was traveling to an eye appointment on the MBTA, was riding the escalator up from the platform. She was near the top of the escalator when she apparently fell, and her clothing became tangled in the escalator machinery. News reports also indicate that she suffered a heart attack, but it is not clear whether that heart attack was before or as a result of the accident.

MBTA escalators have been the cause of accidents and wrongful death in the past. An East Boston man died on an MBTA escalator when his sweatshirt hood got caught in an escalator in Cambridge. A three-year-old boy suffered severe leg injuries on the old Aquarium Blue Line stop’s escalator in Boston. Several people were injured in a Back Bay escalator accident when the escalator suddenly stopped, hurling the passengers down the stairs. The Aquarium T escalator, and the escalators at Back Bay have frequent scenes of accidents.

Escalator inspections are conducted by the state each year, and the escalator involved was reportedly also inspected each week and maintained on a monthly basis. The record of this escalator has not yet been made public.

Common Causes of Escalator Accidents

Escalators are large powerful machines, and riders take for granted that they are designed and maintained for safe operation. Some types of escalator accidents are common, however.

  • Missing teeth in the comb plates cause entrapment of shoes with severe foot injuries
  • Contact with the side of the escalator can cause injuries to feet and legs when body parts get caught. These injuries are most common in children
  • Sudden stops caused by machinery failure can pitch riders down the the metal stairs
  • Sudden speeding-up or slowing-down can also cause people to fall on escalators
  • Entanglement of clothing in gaps in the machinery can involve shoe laces, clothing, backpacks, and even shoes themselves. For example, there has been an increase in accidents reported in children wearing Croc rubber sandals.

Thousands of people are treated each year for escalator injuries and deaths, many of which result of the negligent maintenance of escalators, or the defective design of the machinery itself.

Additional Resources

Crocs Can Pose Danger on Escalators, ABC News

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