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.

Massachusetts Law on Waivers and Releases

WaiverThe proposition is all too familiar: You or your children want to participate in an activity. It could be at school, for a sporting event, in connection with a walk-a-thon or bike-a-thon, or in some other activity where there is a risk involved. Maybe the event is really risky, such as learning to drive a race car, or learning how to rock climb. Part of the price of admission to all of these activities is your signature at the bottom of a release or waiver of liability.

The language of the typical release is usually very broad and even includes the requirement that you indemnify the organization against related claims. You will be binding not only yourself, but your family, and in the case of a wrongful death, your heirs.

Are they legal? Most of the time yes, though there are some important exceptions which will be discussed below.

The Massachusetts courts generally uphold the validity of releases and waivers that are entered into knowingly. This includes pre-accident releases as well as releases in connection with settlements. Our courts have repeatedly affirmed just how broadly Massachusetts law favors the enforcement of releases.

Simply put, a defendant ordinarily may “validly exempt itself from liability which it might subsequently incur as a result of its own negligence.” Lee v. Allied Sports Assocs., 349 Mass. 544 , 550 (1965) (car racetrack accident).

In the more recent case of Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99 (2002), the court enforced a release signed by a father on behalf of his daughter as a condition of her participation in cheerleading in her high school. After she was injured, the family brought suit for the school’s negligence. The release was raised as a defense, and the court strongly affirmed the enforceability of the release, citing a host of public policy arguments.

The requirements for a binding release include clear and conspicuous language, proper naming of the party, the signature of the party, and valid contractual “consideration.” Consideration, meaning something of value that is exchanged, is satisfied by the participation in the activity.

Some particularly disturbing releases seek to include third parties who may be related to the activity named in the release. For example, your school child may wish to participate in after-school volunteer activities, and the release required to participate may include all the companies participating in the program. Now assume something horrible–the contracting company had failed to screen its employees, and a dangerous criminal was employed and caused your child harm. The negligent hiring would likely be within the scope of the release.

There are some exceptions to enforceability of releases. There are certain statutory exceptions that apply. One exception (and it is one that is frequently violated) is a release of liability to join a gym or health club. G.L. c. 93, Section 80 makes such language unenforceable and, in fact, a violation of G.L. c. 93A, the Consumer Protection Act. If you are injured in a health club due to equipment failure, a defect on the premises, or the negligence of a staff person, you will be able to bring your claim. Here is a related blog on health club waivers and releases.

Although a party may contract against liability for harm caused by its own negligence, it may not do so with respect to harm caused by its gross negligence. Zavras v. Capeway Rovers Motorcycle Club, Inc., 44 Mass. App. Ct. 17 (1997). See also Gillespie v. Papale, 541 F. Supp. 1042, 1046 (D. Mass. 1982).

A party may not contract against liability for harm caused by violation of a statutory duty. Zavras v. Capeway Rovers Motorcycle Club, Inc., 44 Mass. App. Ct. 17, 19 (1997), citing Gillespie v. Papale, 541 F. Supp. 1042, 1046 (D. Mass. 1982).

A release may be avoided, in part, if it is the result of a “mutual mistake.” In the exceptionally rare case of Leblanc v. Friedman, 53 Mass. App. Ct. 697 (2002), a settlement release was not a complete bar to a subsequent claim by the plaintiff. The plaintiff settled a medical malpractice case arising from an instrument left in her body, and although the release was worded broadly, the court found there was a question of fact whether it was meant to include another injury not described in the release itself.

What Should You Do?

Entering into a release is an important contractual event. You should consider whether the reward overrides the risk. Some pre-enrollment due diligence is a good idea–ask about the staff involved, inspect the premises, get some references. If you are not willing to release all of your claims, try crossing out the offending language or simply not signing the release. However, most organizations are wise enough to recognize and disallow both of those techniques.

It would be appropriate for the Massachusetts legislature to consider revising the law of pre-accident releases. Sadly, that day does not look likely to come any time soon.

Contact our Boston office today

The lawyers at the Boston, Massachusetts firm of Breakstone, White & Gluck represent clients who have suffered personal injury as a result of the negligence of others. We have had experience identifying unenforceable releases which has allowed our clients to proceed with their claims for compensation. For more information and a free consultation, contact us today at 800-379-1244 or 617-723-7676 or use our contact form.

What Massachusetts Consumers Need to Know about Health Club Contracts


If you exercise at a health club, you may not be aware that Massachusetts law protects you in many ways from unlawful club contracts.  But many local health clubs – yours may be included – are regularly violating the law.

Health clubs are serving larger numbers than in the past. Over 50.2 million Americans now hold gym memberships, a 10 percent increase over the past three years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

The industry has been known to make it challenging for members to cancel or put their memberships on hold. Sometimes, after you sign the cancellation agreement, they require you to pay until month’s end, then another full “last month.” In addition to monthly membership fees, many are also now adding new fees for “annual” memberships and equipment maintenance. Some are even charging cancellation fees up to $200. This is still legal in Massachusetts, though not at all consumer friendly.

But did you notice the fees clearly posted the last time you visited your gym? If not, your gym is violating the law. The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation recently inspected 15 local health clubs and found none were displaying fees or informing consumers of their right to cancel within three days, according to WBZ-TV. The office is referring the results to the state Attorney General’s office.

Health clubs cannot ask a member to sign a waiver of liability but, surprisingly, many still do. While waivers of liability, also known as releases, are generally enforceable in Massachusetts, G.L. c. 93, Sec. 80 specifically states, “No contract for health club services may contain any provisions whereby the buyer agrees not to assert against the seller or any assignee or transferee of the health club services contract any claim or defense arising out of the health club services contract or the buyer’s activities at the health club.”

This means gyms have a duty to properly maintain their premises and equipment and make sure they are being used in a safe manner, according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. If they do not, and they were negligent, they may be responsible for your damages. If you have been injured in a Massachusetts gym, the court should find the liability waiver void. Over the years, our injury lawyers have successfully challenged these agreements.

Gyms also cannot ask members to sign up for terms longer than 36 months or require that members agree to financing that lasts longer than one month beyond the membership period. Members cannot be required to agree to monthly automatic withdrawals from a bank account.

If you are joining a gym, the best thing you can do is read the fine print on your member agreement before signing. Research the organization online through your local Better Business Bureau website.

Consumer remedies for health club violations are limited. No health club will be permitted by the courts to enforce an illegal contract. A consumer may bring claims under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A, but damages will usually be nominal, although attorneys’ fees would be available.

Recent Court Ruling

The possibility of class actions was virtually eliminated by the recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in Tyler v. Michaels Stores, Inc., 464 Mass. 492 (2013). An invasion of a consumer’s rights may be a violation of G.L. c. 93A, but unless the consumer has suffered a separate, identifiable harm arising from the violation, there will be no remedy. This case put a disappointing crimp into collective consumer action to prevent violations of the Consumer Protection Act, leaving overworked state officials to take up the slack.

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Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Dog Bite Case Against Landlord to Proceed

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has allowed the claim of a child who was bitten by a dog to proceed to trial against the landlords, even though the landlords did not own the dog.  The ruling reverses a lower court ruling in favor of the landlord.

The plaintiff was ten years old when he was attacked by a pit bull named Tiny. Tiny belonged to another tenant in the same 4-family building. Tiny had been found in the woods and adopted by the family. Tiny had demonstrated some aggressive behavior prior to the date of the incident.  The plaintiff’s family maintained that they had lodged multiple complaints with the landlords about not just the presence of the dog, but also its aggressive behavior. The landlords were also informed that Tiny was allowed to roam unrestrained, a violation of the Waltham leash law. The landlords claimed they had no knowledge that the dog might be dangerous.

The landlords had a no-dog policy for the premises, but failed to enforce that policy with regard to Tiny.  In fact, the plaintiff’s family had previously given up its dogs because of the landlords’ policy.

On the date of the incident, Tiny was sitting on a porch, unrestrained, then ran across the yard, jumped a fence, and bit the plaintiff who was playing in the neighbor’s yard. The ten-year old had mulitiple dog bite injuries to his leg.

The Superior Court judge ruled that the landlords were not negligent, and that the fears of the pit bull were “subjective.”  The Appeals Court disagreed.

In Massachusetts, a third party such as a landlord, is not liable under the Massachusetts strict liability statute governing dogs. While a dogs owner or keeper is strictly liable for injuries caused by their dog, a third party can be liable only if he or she is negligent. A landlord does not insure that the property will be safe, and has a duty to use reasonable care for the premises.  Thus, in this case, the plaintiff is required to prove that the landlord knew or should have known of the dangers of the dog.  The landlords could not be held liable just on the fact that the dog was of a dangerous breed, but could be held liable if they had knowledge of its dangerous behavior.

The Appeals Court also noted that negligence cases are ordinarily best left to a jury’s consideration, since the cases often turn on disputed facts. Given the disputed facts in this case, namely whether the landlord had received reports of the dog’s dangerous behavior, the case was sent back to the Superior Court for trial.

The name of the case is Nutt v. Florio, Appeals Court No. 08-P-81 (October 19, 2009).  

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Massachusetts Commuter Rail Accident at Boston South Station, September 15, 2009

There has been another train accident on the commuter rail, this time at South Station in Boston. The Boston Herald reports that approximately 9AM, train 512, which originated in Worcester, failed to stop in time and collided with the end-of-track bumper at South Station, the last stop on the route.  Of the approximately 100 passengers on the train, at least 18 people suffered personal injuries, many of whom were treated at local hospitals. 

Although the train was allegedly traveling at a speed of 5 miles per hour at the time of the collision, many passengers were standing in preparation for getting off the train and were thrown to the floor and suffered personal injuries.  Many patients were taken off the train on backboards by emergency personnel.  Boston Medical Center activated its emergency plan in case a large number of injured passengers.

Transportation officials have already suggested that operator error contributed to the collision.  Investigations by the MBTA and the National Transportation Safety Board are underway.  Preliminary reports have ruled out signal, dispatching, or equipment problems as a cause.  The Boston Herald has reported that the train’s engineer told supervisors that he misjudged the stopping distance at the South Station platform. The engineer will be tested for drugs and alcohol.

Ordinarily, trains stop dozens of yards back from the bumpers, which are the emergency devices designed to stop the train at the end of the track and to protect people in the train station. There are no recent reports of other crashes into the bumpers.

If you would like more information about what to do if you were injured in this train accident, please call us at 1-800-379-1244 or visit us at www.bwglaw.com.

For More Information

Train hits South Station bumper, 16 passengers hurt, Boston Herald, September 15, 2009

18 injured in commuter rail mishap at South Station, boston.com, September 15, 2009

Massachusetts Court Upholds Verdict in Premises Liability Case; Discusses Innovative Jury Techniques and Question of “Control”

On August 29, 2003, several people suffered personal injuries and one person was killed when an improperly secured gate arm at the Gillette Stadium in Foxboro swung into a bus traveling on an access road. The stadium, which is the home of the New England Patriots, is on property managed by Foxboro Realty Associates, LLC, with security provided by Apollo Security, Inc,. parking operations managed by Standard Parking Systems.

According to the evidence, the accident occurred when the gate arm was not properly secured by its three pound pin, and a gust of wind blew it from the open position. The evidence demonstrated that Foxboro Realty Associates had promulgated a policy on securing the gate, but had failed to put the policy in writing. It was the job of Apollo to unlock the gate and the job of Standard to open and secure the gates at the appropriate times.

After a trial lasting several weeks, the plaintiff (who was the wife of the deceased passenger from the van) was awarded $4,400,000 for her husband’s conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death arising from the negligence of the defendants.

There were two issues on appeal: The instructions the trial judge gave the jury about discussing the evidence; and the issue of control, and whether Foxboro had sufficient control over the parking operations to be found negligent for the actions of its indpendent contractor.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the judge’s instructions to the jury that they could discuss the evidence in the case during the trial (which is most unusual in Massachusetts) were improper, because such discussions can only be allowed in civil cases when all parties agree. One party had objected. However, the court found that the error was harmless, because the evidence of the defendant’s negligence was very strong.

The Court also ruled that the trial judge had given proper instructions to the jury on control. Under Massachusetts law, an employer is not liable for the acts of an independent contractor unless the employer “retained some level of control over the manner inwhich the work was performed.”  The judge had instructed the jury that the employer could be found liable if it failed to exercise its control with reasonable care. The judge’s instructions were found to be consistent with Massachusetts law, and the judge was not required to give the instructions requested by one of the defendants. 

The case is Kelly v. Roxboro Realty Associates, LLC, 454 Mass. 306 (2009).

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Massachusetts Elderly Drivers Involved in Motor Vehicle Accidents Ignite Debate Regarding New Licensing Requirements

A large number of motor vehicle accidents involving elderly drivers has prompted the Transportation Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature to enact a bill that would impose driving tests on people over 85 years of age. Currently, Massachusetts only mandates a vision test every ten years.  However, a group of lawmakers is trying to enact tougher regulations on the elderly.

Several recent tragedies have drawn attention to safety issues related to elderly drivers. Concerns about reaction time and vision of the elderly have arisen from the wrongful death of 4-year old Diya Patel who was allegedly killed by an 86-year-old woman in Canton earlier this month.  Similar stories this year alone accuse elderly drivers of crashing into a Wal-Mart, a group of cyclists at UMASS, and even a Vietnam Memorial in Plymouth.  Furthermore, an 84-year-old woman remains in critical condition after an 86-year-old man allegedly hit her while she was crossing the street near downtown Melrose yesterday.

According to an article in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Rep. Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee) and Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton) want to enact a law similar to those in nearly 30 other states which mandate road tests alongside the vision test every five years for drivers over 85. This would override the current system, where drivers take a simple vision test every ten years after their initial licensure.

Not surprisingly, the issue is a sensitive one for many who say that regulating senior driving and treating them more like adolescents is demeaning and insulting. Even some suspects, such as 85-year-old Dominick Perry who stands accused of pinning a young boy against another car in a parking lot complain that “age discrimination” is the sole reason for the revocation of his license.  A story in The Boston Globe tells of a former race-car driver who took a long and difficult mock test similar to the road test which would be required of someone his age under the new law.  However, the anecdotal evidence from the elderly about the tedious nature of the test doesn’t outweigh the substantial evidence which links many elderly people to acts of negligent driving.

More Information

Lawmakers Hear Call for More Legislation Regarding Elderly Drivers – Boston Globe July 1, 2009.
Legislators Discuss Proposed Elderly Driving Bill Tomorrow – Lawrence Eagle Tribune – June 29, 2009.
Tested for the Road – Hospital Test Gauges Older Drivers’ Capability. – Boston Globe July 1, 2009.
Registry Revokes License of Driver, 86, in Melrose Accident. – Boston Globe June 29, 2009.
Passenger Dies in Elderly Driving Case – Boston Herald July 1, 2009.
Driver Charges Elderly Bias – Boston Herald July 2, 2009.
Malden Man Involved in Fatal Wreck Has Recent Road Woes – Boston Herald July 2, 2009.

If you’ve been injured in a motor vehicle accident<

The attorneys at Breakstone, White and Gluck have a proven record in dealing with elderly drivers envolved in cases of wrongful death and car accidents. Recently, Ronald E. Gluck  obtained a significant recovery for a 33 year old school teacher and avid sports enthusiast who was struck by an elderly woman in a parking lot.  If you or anyone you know has suffered injury  as the result of an elderly driver or any motor vehicle accident, please visit www.bwglaw.com or call 617-723-7676.  Experience Matters.

Massachusetts Homeowner Found to be Not Liable for Subcontractor’s Damages

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently reviewed a case in which the defendant homeowner, Johnson, hired a contractor to remove several trees from her land. The contractor subsequently hired a subcontractor/crane operator, West, to help with the project. The crane was damaged during the work, and the crane operator sued the homeowner. The jury found in his favor. His case was before the Appeals Court to determine whether the homeowner was liable for his damages.

Johnson had several conversations with the general contractor about the exact location of her septic system, which was important for him to know in order to safely remove the trees. The contractor apparently conveyed information about the septic system to his subcontractor, the crane operator. The day the crane arrived, Johnson noticed that it was set up in the location of the septic system. Though she was a surprised, she did not interfere with his work.

Soon after, the crane’s outrigger pierced the septic system and the crane tipped over, causing damage to the crane and to the house. The crane operator sued Johnson, cliaming that she had a duty to warn him about the septic system.

The Appeals Court determined there was no duty. Even though Johnson may have been suspicious of the crane’s placement, she did not have a further duty to give warnings. She retained no control over the work in general, and crane operator’s work in particular. Her only duty to the general contractor was to give accurate information about the septic system, which she did. It was the responsibility of the original contractor to oversee the actions of the crane operator.

Accordingly, the crane operator’s case was dismissed. The case is West v. Johnson, Mass. App. Ct. No. 08-P-130 (2009). 

As a homeowner, how can I protect myself from these types of lawsuits?

An important consideration in determining liability is control: the less control you have over a situation, the less likely it is that you will be liable for damages. One of the many benefits of hiring a general contractor to help with a residential construction project is the shift of liability from you to the contractor. If a contractor agrees to oversee all aspects of subcontractor performance, the homeowner will likely have no direct contractual agreements with the subcontractors and, therefore, retain no control over their work.

Before hiring a contractor, be proactive. Ensure that they are registered with the state, and are carrying adequate insurance. Review the details of your contract, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and ask for proof of his/her registration and insurance certificates. Browse the additional links below for more tips on how to choose a contractor. 

Additional links:

• Homeowners FAQ’s – The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security
• Choosing a Professional Contractor – The Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry

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Massachusetts Reaches Final Settlement in Big Dig Tunnell Ceiling Collapse

Massachusetts has reached a final settlement in the Big Dig tunnel ceiling collapse case that caused the wrongful death of Boston resident Milena Del Valle and the injury of her husband.

Gannett Fleming, the company which designed the ceiling, will pay $50,000 to the city of Boston and $1.5 million for maintaining the Big Dig tunnels. Additionally, they will forfeit $150,000 in payments from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

Sika Corp., which made the epoxy glue that held the ceiling in place, has agreed to pay $200,000. This money will go directly into a trust fund that has been designed to fund the upkeep of the Boston tunnel complex.

Two claims were dismissed: those against Sigma Engineering International Inc., a structural engineering company, and Conam Inc., a materials inspection company.
Both were determined to have no liability for the ceiling collapse.

After the tragic accident, resulting from the negligent design and construction of the tunnel, Massachusetts undertook a thorough examination of the tunnel system. The resulting settlements have provided funds that will assist in proper upkeep and maintenance in years ahead.

More Information

AG settles with final two firms in fatal collapse of Big Dig tunnel, Boston Globe, March 27, 2009

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Massachusetts Court Affirms $3.4M Verdict in Negligence Case Against Liquor Store–Drunk Driver Caused Wrongful Death

On January 7, 2003, 16-year-old Trista Zinck was struck and killed by an underage drunk driver, William White, as she walked with her boyfriend, Neil Bornstein, along Ferry Road in Newburyport. Bornstein survived, but was seriously injured. Before the accident, White had been drinking at his friend Brendan Kneram’s house, whose parents were away. Earlier that day, White, Kneram and their two friends pooled some money, and Kneram used his fake New Jersey driver’s license to purchase a 30-pack of beer at The Gateway Country Store in Seabrook, NH.

Since the accident occurred in Massachusetts, Zinck and Bornstein’s families brought actions for negligence in the Massachusetts Superior Court against both the driver and Gateway Country Store, alleging that the store negligently sold beer to an underage buyer, a transaction that was the proximate cause of the accident that killed Zinck and injured Bornstein. In 2004, an Essex County jury decided that the liquor store was partially responsible for the wrongful death and injuries, and awarded the families nearly $9 million in damages, which the defendants promptly appealed.

On appeal, Gateway admitted that it sold the beer to the underage Brendan Kneram, but argued that because it was William White who became intoxicated and caused the accident, the store should not be held liable. In Massachusetts, to be liable for negligent conduct, the plaintiffs had to prove two primary elements:

  • First, they had to prove that the defendants owed a duty of care, and that they breached that duty. Businesses that sell alcohol owe a duty of care to the public, by law. In this case, the jury found that Gateway breached this duty by selling alcohol to someone whom the store clerk reasonably should have known was under 21.
  • Second, the plaintiffs had to prove that there was a causal link between the breach (the sale of the alcohol) and the harm (the car accident). Gateway argued that its liability ended once Kneram served the beer to his friends, but the jury did not agree.

In its opinion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reiterated the test of causation, which the trial judge had instructed the jury to apply: If an intervening act (Kneram giving the beer to his friends) was foreseeable by the defendant, then the original negligent act (the sale of the beer) remains a proximate cause of the harm (the car accident).

Another important part of this test is that the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant could have foreseen the exact harm that occurred, but only the injuries that could have occurred in “substantially the manner” in which they did. In this case, plaintiffs had to show the jury that the liquor store clerk could have reasonably foreseen that selling 30 cans of beer to an underage man with an out-of-state license, on a snowy, January evening, with a car full of other underage teenagers waiting in the parking lot, is an action that could potentially cause a fatal drunk driving accident.

Here are two more general, important points to keep in mind about causation and the role of the jury in these types of cases:

This is a civil case, not a criminal case, so the burden of proof is much lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A jury only needs to find “more likely than not” that the defendant was negligent. The two elements of negligence (breach and causation) are questions of fact for the jury to sort out after evaluating the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ versions of the events.

It should be noted that under Massachusetts law, the driver and the liquor store were found jointly liable, meaning both are responsible for the full amount of the damages. The plaintiffs will be able to recover the balance of the damages from the liquor store since the insurance on the driver will be inadequate to cover the damages.

The name of the case above is Zinck vs. Gateway Country Store, Inc., 72 Mass. App. Ct. 571 (2009).

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