Bar liable for death caused by stairway that violated building codes

Court Columns

Commercial properties, such as bars and restaurants, should be held liable when their actions lead to injury or even death. When a commercial establishment is responsible for such a tragedy, there may be multiple ways under the law to hold them accountable, as seen in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case of Klairmont v. Gainsboro Restaurant, Inc.

A tragic fall

In Klairmont, a college student went to a bar with friends and was served two beers. At one point, the student sought a quiet space to receive a phone call and walked out of the main bar into a hallway. Unbeknownst to the student a downward staircase to the basement adjoined the hallway.

However, the presence of the stairs was obscured by hanging vinyl strips. As he walked to receive the call, the student lost his balance and fell down the stairs. He was later discovered lying on the floor at the bottom of the staircase. He died two days later due to a skull fracture and related injuries from the fall.

His family brought a wrongful death action; in addition, they alleged that the stairs were defective in violation of numerous provisions of the state building code and that these violations were unfair or deceptive conduct upon which suit could be brought.

At trial, the judge held that the bar was in violation of the building code and that the student had suffered the fatal injury because the stairs were unsafe and defective, having been built and rebuilt without the necessary building permits. The judge awarded more than $6 million in damages. The bar appealed.

Was the bar's conduct "unfair and deceptive" under the law?

On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the basement at the bar contained hazards that were violations of the building code, including the fact that there was no door at the top of the staircase and no landing at the top of the staircase. The kitchen manager had notified one owner that the stairs needed to be fixed or someone would get hurt.

The bar's conduct was "unfair" within the meaning of the law, as they had knowingly violated the building code for more than 20 years, thereby creating hazardous conditions in a place open to the public where alcohol was served. The conduct was also "deceptive" in that if the student or others had known of the highly dangerous conditions, they might have taken their business elsewhere.

Although the damages award would need to be reviewed by the lower court in light of the court's findings, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the family was entitled to recover damages to the extent that the student would have been able to recover on the claim, if he had still been alive.

Fighting on your behalf

If you have lost a loved one due to the negligence or recklessness of another party, you should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to ensure that the responsible parties are held accountable under any and all provisions of the law that are applicable to the situation. Seek an attorney who will do what is necessary to fight for your ability to recover for the loss of your loved one.

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