Safety By the Book: Defendants Deviating from the Code May Face Strict Liability and Presumptions of Negligence

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Over the years that I have practiced as a subrogation attorney, I have seen a lot of terrible and damaging fires that could have easily been avoided, but none are more frustrating than those that occur where there has been a code violation.  Below are a few examples of laws spanning the country which increasingly hold parties accountable for violating the jurisdiction’s code in such a way as to cause harm to persons and property. 

  • New York’s highest court recognizes building code violations as evidence of negligence. In such instances, the building code establishes a duty, and parties that fail to meet that basic duty are liable for the resulting harm.
  • California’s Civil Jury Instructions state that if the jury finds that a party violated a portion of the code and that the violation was a substantial factor in bringing about harm, then the juror must find the defendant was negligent per se.
  • Florida courts have stated that building code violations can be used by injured parties as prima facie evidence of negligence.
  • Washington State code specifically allows for the trier of fact to consider code violations as evidence of negligence and certain code violations as evidence of negligence per se.  Specifically where a business owner, builder or similar party fails to adhere to the electrical, fire safety or environmental codes, the trier of fact will consider those violations as evidence of negligence per se.
  • In Illinois, violation of a statute, ordinance, or an administrative ruling, regulation or order designed for the protection of human life or property is prima facie evidence of negligence or other fault.
  • Massachusetts’ high court has unequivocally stated that strict liability will attach to all building code violations in commercial buildings, not just those affecting fire safety.

A code violation does not always result in an automatic verdict for an injured plaintiff.  However, it is important to look at the facts of your case, the harm suffered and whether code violations caused or contributed to the wrong you are trying to right.  The code serves as a baseline for responsible conduct.  Violations are therefore  recognized as evidence that a party failed to fulfill a basic duty. Such a party can be found negligent and responsible for the harm its negligence caused. 

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