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Premises Liability: The Limits of a Host’s Duty of Care

Under Massachusetts’ law of premises liability, a homeowner’s duty of care to her guests includes keeping her property in reasonably safe condition. This means, among other things, guarding against conditions that could cause reasonably foreseeable injuries to guests. It might involve, for instance, taking steps to prevent foreseeable injury caused by third parties who come on the property, or warning a guest of a nonobvious danger on the property.

When a guest has been injured by a property condition in Massachusetts, determining whether the host took “reasonable” steps to prevent that injury requires an examination of the totality of the circumstances. On one hand, the host may breach her duty by failing to take simple steps to prevent an injury that was obviously foreseeable. On the other hand, she may not breach her duty if the injury stemmed from a freak accident that would have required extraordinary foresight to anticipate and heroic effort to prevent.

Finding the limits of foreseeability and prevention beyond which a host is not liable for a guest’s injury is not always straightforward. But, two personal injury cases involving somewhat unusual accidents give us a sense of where the border often lies.

When a Snowblower Discharge Shatters A Window

In Fithian v. Reed, 204 F.3d 306 (1st Cir. 2000), the parents of three-year-old Stephen Fithian sued his grandparents, Edward and Martha Reed, for failing to prevent an injury the boy sustained during a winter visit to the grandparents’ home in Hingham, Massachusetts. One morning after a snowstorm, in a show of New England kindness, the Reeds’ next door neighbor began clearing snow from around the elderly couple’s parked cars using a snowblower. Three-year-old Stephen, intrigued by the snow blowing contraption, watched its progress through the dining room window. When the neighbor reached a particularly tricky part of the job, he angled the blower discharge toward the house. The stream of snow struck and shattered the window behind which Stephen was watching, injuring him.

After the trial court ruled against the plaintiffs, they appealed and were denied again. Both courts found that the boy’s injuries were not foreseeable, and so his grandparents had not been negligent in failing to prevent them. The totality of the circumstances, including the suddenness of the change in direction of the snow blower stream, the practical inability of the Reeds to get their neighbor’s attention to direct his efforts away from the house, and the relatively unusual fact of snow breaking a window, led the courts to conclude that there was simply no practical precaution the Reeds could reasonably have been expected to take to prevent their grandson’s injury.

When an Overflowing Toilet Electrifies an Outdoor Faucet

Similarly, in Hebert v. Enos, 60 Mass. App. Ct. 817 (2004), William Hebert sued his neighbor, Carl Enos, when a faucet on the exterior of Carl’s house gave William a nasty electric shock. Carl had asked William, his neighbor in Framingham, to do him a favor and water his flowers while he was away on vacation. William obliged and watered the flower bed three days in a row without incident. But, on the fourth day, he received a life-threatening jolt when he touched the outdoor faucet on Carl’s house. It turned out that while Carl had been away, his upstairs toilet had overflowed, breaking down insulation around his wiring and thereby carrying electricity to the surrounding piping system. When William touched the metal faucet, he completed an electrical circuit, receiving the shock.

William sued Carl, and although the courts found that Carl was likely at fault for the broken toilet, they declined to hold him liable for William’s injuries. As with the snow blowing incident in Fithian, the circumstances in Hebert were simply too random and unusual for Carl to have foreseen them and taken reasonable measures to prevent William from being zapped. The courts concluded that while overflowing toilets can cause all sorts of harms, it was “highly extraordinary” for them to cause an electric shock when someone touched an electrified exterior faucet. A homeowner can’t be said to have breached a duty of care to prevent that sort of freak injury.

In short, whether you can recover for injuries you sustain in an unusual accident on someone else’s property may depend on just how strange the accident is, and whether the property owner could reasonably have done anything to keep you out of harm’s way. If you have been injured in a freak accident on someone else’s property, consult an experienced personal injury attorney to evaluate your case.

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