Addis v. Steele, 94-P-379

CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts
Citation38 Mass.App.Ct. 433,648 N.E.2d 773
Decision Date05 June 1995
Docket NumberNo. 94-P-379,94-P-379
PartiesDeborah J. ADDIS & another 1 v. Duane A. STEELE, individually & as trustee, 2 & others. 3

Evan T. Lawson, Brewster, for the defendants.

Steven B. Rosenthal, Boston, for the plaintiffs.



During the early morning hours of October 2, 1989, a fire started by an arsonist broke out in the Red Inn (the inn) in Provincetown. The plaintiffs, husband and wife, were paying guests of the inn that night. To escape the fire, they jumped out of a second story window and were injured. They brought suit against (1) Duane A. Steele as trustee of the Tamerlane Realty Trust (the trust), the owner of the building, (2) Tamerlane Corp. (the corporation), a Massachusetts corporation which leased the building from the trust and owned and operated the inn, 4 and (3) Duane A. Steele and Mary Jo Avellar, individually, 5 for negligently failing to provide a proper and safe means of egress.

A jury-waived trial was held at the Brookline District Court. At the close of the plaintiffs' case, the defendants moved for an involuntary dismissal, see Mass.R.Civ.P. 41(b)(2), 365 Mass. 804 (1974). The judge denied the motion, as well as various requests for rulings. The defendants offered no evidence. On February 12, 1993, the judge found for the plaintiffs against all defendants, awarding Addis $98,800 and Reed $22,000. The defendants appealed to the Appellate Division of the District Court, alleging error in the denial of their rule 41(b) motion and in the denial of certain requests for rulings. The Appellate Division dismissed the report and affirmed the judgment on January 18, 1994. The defendants now appeal to this court, 6 claiming (1) the intervening criminal act of a third party relieves the defendants of tort liability; and (2) there is no basis for liability against the trust or the individual defendants. We affirm the judgment against the corporation, but we reverse as to the trust and the individual defendants.

The judge found the following facts. 7 We add undisputed facts, as appropriate. At approximately 12:30 A.M. on October 2, 1989, Steele stopped by the inn "to check on things." He found the windows closed and the doors locked, so he left. Soon thereafter, the plaintiffs were awakened by the fire alarm. They ran down the stairs they had ascended earlier. The premises were in darkness and full of smoke; the dining room was afire. First, they tried to leave by the door through which they had entered that part of the building: it was locked. Other efforts to escape from the first floor were unsuccessful. Ultimately, they returned to the second floor, forced open a window, jumped out, and were injured.

The court also found that the plaintiffs were left to sleep in the inn alone. There was no one on duty "or even sleeping on the premises ... If the inn was being watched, guarded or supervised ... no arsonist could have accomplished his or her heinous crime."

The judge concluded that there was negligence consisting of the failure to have someone on duty at the inn during the nighttime, the failure to provide sufficient or emergency lighting, and the failure to provide access to exits, properly marked and easily opened. The judge also concluded that the defendants "could have foreseen that a third party wrongdoer could commit an intervening criminal act," and that the defendants could reasonably have anticipated the fire.

The defendants argue that the trial judge should have allowed their motion for involuntary dismissal, first, because they are not responsible for the plaintiffs' injuries caused by an arsonist (i.e., that the intervening criminal act of a third party relieves them of liability) and second, because there was no evidence that any defendant was negligent concerning any condition of the premises which caused harm to the plaintiffs. 8 The test is whether the plaintiffs' evidence, and all reasonable inferences therefrom drawn in their favor, is sufficient to support a judgment for the plaintiffs. See Kendall v. Selvaggio, 413 Mass. 619, 625, 602 N.E.2d 206 (1992); Smith & Zobel, Rules Practice § 41.10 at 59 (1977).

1. Discussion. There was ample justification in the record to support the judge's findings of fact. We place those facts against the background of the applicable law.

While innkeepers are not insurers of their guests' safety, McFadden v. Bancroft Hotel Corp., 313 Mass. 56, 59-60, 46 N.E.2d 573 (1943), they do owe a duty to take steps to protect their guests against unreasonable risk of physical harm. Bearse v. Fowler, 347 Mass. 179, 181, 196 N.E.2d 910 (1964). Fund v. Hotel Lenox of Boston, Inc., 418 Mass. 191, 192-193, 635 N.E.2d 1189 (1994). Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A(1)(a), (2), & illus. 3 (1965). The duty is grounded on the "special relationship" that exists between a hotel and its guests. Whittaker v. Saraceno, 418 Mass. 196, 197, 635 N.E.2d 1185 (1994). See also Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 53 n. 9, 449 N.E.2d 331 (1983) & cases cited. As in Mullins, "it can be said with confidence that ... [innkeepers] of ordinary prudence customarily exercise care to protect the well-being of their ... [paying guests]." Id. at 51, 449 N.E.2d 331. It is commonly recognized that innkeepers provide protection against the peril of fire, and paying guests expect that to be so. No one would doubt that waking up in the nighttime, in a strange building, to the sound and sight of a fire, is an event much to be feared. Sprinkler systems, plainly marked exit signs, emergency lighting systems, and clear and obvious instructions about what to do in case of fire are the rule, not the exception.

Thus, the State Building Code, 780 Code Mass.Regs. § 604.1 (1980), as in effect in 1989, provided that "[t]he owner or lessee of every existing building and structure shall be responsible for the safety of all persons in, or occupying, such premises with respect to the adequacy of means of egress therefrom." Title 780 Code Mass.Regs. § 607.2 (1980) provided that "[a]ll required exitways shall be so located as to be discernible and accessible with unobstructed access thereto." 780 Code Mass.Regs. § 624 (1981) contained detailed provisions regarding "Means of Egress Lighting," and 780 Code Mass.Regs. § 1202 (1981) described the installation and maintenance of "Fire Suppression Systems."

We have no doubt that the corporation owed the plaintiffs a duty of due care, and that by failing to provide adequate lighting and a clear and obvious exit path from the building in the event of fire, the corporation failed to perform its duty of protecting the plaintiffs against an unreasonable risk of injury. But whether that failure is sufficient to fasten liability on the corporation turns on whether the corporation is correct in arguing that because the fire was set by an arsonist, the corporation did not have the duty to protect the plaintiffs from the criminal activity of a third person.

The question boils down to the issue of foreseeability. "The word 'foreseeable' has been used to define both the limits of a duty of care and the limits of proximate cause." Whittaker v. Saraceno, 418 Mass. at 198, 635 N.E.2d 1185. The judge found as a fact that the arson was foreseeable, see Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. at 58, 449 N.E.2d 331; Roberts v. Southwick, 415 Mass. 465, 473-474, 614 N.E.2d 659 (1993), but the corporation argues that we should rule, as matter of law, that in the circumstances of this case, the harm caused by a fire set by an arsonist was not a reasonably foreseeable risk. We see no sound reason to do so.

The corporation concedes that "the possibility of fire was foreseen and guarded against with ... smoke detector, sprinkler and alarm system[s]." Given the foreseeability of a fire at the inn, the corporation gains no benefit from the fact that the fire was set. "The duty to protect the other against unreasonable risk of harm extends to ... risks arising from ... acts of third persons, whether they be innocent, negligent, intentional, or even criminal." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A comment d. The judge was warranted in finding that the corporation's failure to provide adequate lighting and egress created a foreseeable risk that a fire, however started 9--innocently, negligently, or by a criminal act--would cause harm to its guests, and the Appellate Division was correct in dismissing the report as to the corporation. See Fund v. Hotel Lenox of Boston, Inc., 418 Mass. at 194, 635 N.E.2d 1189 (the failure of the hotel to maintain an adequate security system created the foreseeable risk that a trespasser would gain entrance to the hotel and assault a guest). See also Mozer v. Semenza, 177 So.2d 880, 882-883 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1965) (finding for the plaintiff in an action for injuries from a fire started by an arsonist affirmed; the act of the arsonist was not an "independent intervening cause").

2. The liability of the trust and the individuals. The judge ruled that the trust as well as the individuals was liable to the plaintiffs, and the Appellate Division affirmed that judgment. We disagree.

a. As to the trust. After the expiration of the written lease from the trust to the corporation, the corporation held over by agreement and became a tenant at will, Chester A. Baker, Inc. v. Shea Dry Cleaners, Inc., 322 Mass. 311, 312, 77 N.E.2d 223 (1948), upon the terms of the expired, written lease, Boudreau v. Johnson, 241 Mass. 12, 16, 134 N.E. 359 (1922), and the corporation remained in exclusive possession and control of the premises. Under the terms of the expired lease, the corporation had the duty to maintain the leased premises in good condition; the trust was obliged merely to maintain the structure of the building. As to injuries...

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