The Facts: Goreham v. Martins, No. SJC 12761, 2020 WL 3407710 (Mass. June 22, 2020)
On a cold day in January 2010, Robert Goreham exited his apartment through the rear fire escape and walked down the building’s driveway to run errands. Before reaching the street, he tumbled on ice, fracturing his fibula and dislocating his ankle.
Two years after the fall, Mr. Goreham brought suit against his landlord alleging that the landlord was negligent in failing to have the ice removed from the driveway. Mr. Goreham also alleged that the landlord’s omission constituted a breach of the parties’ lease, specifically its implied warranty of habitability and covenant of quiet enjoyment.
At trial, the jury agreed that the landlord was negligent in failing to clear the icy driveway. But it also found that Mr. Goreham was the primary cause of his own injuries because he could have avoided the driveway by exiting the building through the main entrance, which was clear of ice and snow. Because the jury apportioned more than fifty percent of the fault to Mr. Goreham, the court declined to award him any damages. The court also entered judgment in favor of the landlord on Mr. Goreham’s lease-based claims.
On appeal, the SJC considered two issues:
- Whether a residential tenant may recover for personal injuries suffered in slipping on ice that has accumulated on the premises even if the tenant is found to be primarily responsible for causing his or her own injuries; and
- Whether the same set of facts also support a claim that the landlord breached the covenant of quiet enjoyment.
The Court began its discussion by tracing the history of modern leasing and the relative rights and obligations of residential landlords and tenants. For many years, a lease was treated as a transfer of property, where the landlord relinquished full control of the premises to the tenant, and accordingly, was liable to the tenant only for injuries caused by hidden defects known to the landlord. But as the realities of year-to-year, urban and suburban leasing changed, the law evolved with it. By the latter third of the twentieth century, courts were routinely holding landlords responsible for dangerous, injury-causing conditions on their properties. To recover for premises-related personal injuries, tenants generally advanced two theories of liability: 1) the landlord was negligent in failing to exercise reasonable care in preventing or correcting the hazard; or 2) the landlord breached implied terms in the lease requiring it to ensure that the premises were habitable (i.e., fit for human occupation) and suitable for a tenant’s quiet enjoyment (i.e., use of the premises without “serious interference”).
The SJC’s Decision1
Mr. Goreham did not appeal from the jury’s finding that his own negligence was the primary cause of his injuries. Instead, he argued that the landlord’s negligence in failing to clear the driveway required a finding as a matter of law that the landlord breached the implied warranty of habitability and the covenant of quiet enjoyment. The Court disagreed on both issues.
As to habitability, the Court upheld the judgment in favor of the landlord for two reasons. First, it held that because Mr. Goreham had an adequate remedy in tort to address his fall, he was barred from pursuing the same relief as a breach of the implied warranty of habitability. Second, the Court concluded that because the implied warranty of habitability applies only to the tenant’s “dwelling unit,” the presence of snow and ice on the driveway did not make the unit uninhabitable, particularly where the tenant could have exited more safely through the building’s main door.
Likewise, on the quiet enjoyment claim, the Court reasoned that because Mr. Goreham easily could have avoided the driveway by using the building’s main entrance and exit, he could not show that the icy driveway was a “serious interference” to the use and enjoyment of his apartment.2
Thus, the SJC affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the landlord, albeit on different grounds.
The SJC’s holding in Goreham is a narrow one: A tenant cannot recover under the implied warranty of habitability for personal injuries suffered by slipping on ice on the landlord’s property. Under those circumstances, the tenant must pursue relief under principles of negligence – subject to the landlord’s applicable defenses, including comparative fault – or (less commonly) the covenant of quiet enjoyment.
In so cabining the ruling, the SJC expressly ducked the broader issue of whether a tenant ever may recover for personal injuries under the warranty of habitability. How will the SJC resolve this question when it inevitably arises? Only time will tell, but the weight of authority nationally is to resolve landlord/tenant personal injury matters under tort principles, not contract. And there seems to be no rational basis for distinguishing between personal injuries caused by ice and all other premises-related personal injuries. Where traditional precepts of negligence, causation, and damages now fully apply in the landlord/tenant context, there is no reason to adhere to contract principles that have outlived their utility.
1 The SJC gratefully acknowledged amicus briefs from the Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association and the Boston Housing Authority.
2 At the same time, the Court noted that the defense of comparative negligence is inapplicable to a claim for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment.