Can a Massachusetts Tenant’s Use of Property Defeat a Warranty of Habitability Claim?

Using a mixture of Massachusetts law on comparative negligence and products liability, a recent case from the Northeast Housing Court answered yes, and dismissed all claims against a defendant landlord although a jury had found the landlord negligent. By statute, Massachusetts has adopted the rule of “modified comparative negligence.” Under this rule, a plaintiff is barred from recovering any damages if his or her negligence exceeds the combined negligence of all defendants. If the plaintiff’s negligence is 50% or less, the plaintiff may recover damages, but the award is reduced in proportion to the amount of plaintiff’s negligence.

Comparative Negligence Tenants vs. Landlords

In the recent cars, also discussed in last month’s issue of Legal News, a tenant sued his landlord for damages after he slipped and fell on ice in the driveway of his apartment building. In that case the jury returned a verdict, finding the landlord 47% at fault for the accident, and the tenant 53% at fault. The jury’s finding was based on the fact that the plaintiff had lived in the building for five years, was familiar with the property and its conditions during the winter, and that he chose out of habit to exit by the rear stairway leading to the driveway instead of the front stairway to the sidewalk. As a result of the Massachusetts law governing comparative negligence, the plaintiff was barred from recovering on his negligence claim because he was found to be more than 50% at fault. The tenant, nevertheless, pursued his claims for breach of the warranty of habitability and breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. Comparative negligence does not apply as a defense to a breach of warranty of habitability claim and could not, by itself, bar recovery.

The Verdict

The trial court judge found that the defective condition of the premises due to the landlord’s negligence in failing to adequately clear ice and snow from the property constituted a material breach of warranty. The judge concluded, however, that the plaintiff’s choice to use the rear stairway to reach the street, knowing the condition of the driveway, instead of the safer front exit, amounted to an unreasonable misuse of the premises that caused his own injuries, and that the plaintiff’s “knowing and unreasonable misuse of the premises” defeated his breach of warranty claim. The judge’s reasoning was borrowed from products liability law, as argued by the landlord, that a plaintiff’s unreasonable use of a product he or she knows to be dangerous or defective bars recovery for such a claim. The judge also denied the plaintiff’s claim for violation of the covenant of quiet enjoyment because liability for such violation was based solely on negligence, and the plaintiff’s negligence exceeded that of the landlord. The judge noted there was no appellate ruling on the issue, paving the way for a potential appeal.


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