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SJC Concludes That Short-Term Rental Homeowner’s Duty Did Not Extend to Protecting Decedent from Harm Caused by Third Party

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, the defendant rented out his property to Woody Victor and five friends for what was supposed to be a college reunion party.  Instead, the pool party attracted over one hundred attendees and around 3 AM, the police received a report that a guest at the party had been shot. He was later pronounced dead.

The personal representative of the decedent’s estate filed a complaint against the defendant homeowner, asserting that the defendant breached his “duty to conduct the rental of his home in a ‘reasonable, prudent, and legal manner,’” which resulted in the decedent being shot and killed. The trial judge subsequently granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

In Heath-Latson v. Styller, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed the dismissal, concluding that the plaintiff failed to sufficiently allege that the defendant had a duty to protect the decedent from harm caused by a third party.

As a property owner, the defendant was obligated to “maintain his property in a reasonably safe condition to avoid foreseeable injury to all lawful visitors.”  Generally, this duty does not require affirmative action to prevent third party action, except where the there is a “special relationship” between the plaintiff and the defendant, such that the defendant could reasonably foresee that he would be expected to take affirmative action to protect the plaintiff from the anticipated harm.  The SJC concluded that the plaintiff failed to allege any facts suggesting that the defendant should have foreseen a risk of violence caused by a third party at his rental property, including that the plaintiff failed to allege any connection between the alleged shooter and the defendant.

Further, as acknowledged by the plaintiff in her complaint, the defendant gave Victor sole and exclusive possession of the defendant’s residence for the length of the rental period; thus, the defendant’s only duty was to ensure that his property was in a “reasonably safe condition” at the start of the rental period.

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