The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently held that public policy considerations can bar a plaintiff’s recovery on a negligence claim when that plaintiff has violated a criminal statute and the harm to the plaintiff “resulted from a risk of the type against which the statute was designed to give protection.”
In Ryan v. Hughes, 81 Mass. App. Ct. 90 (2012), plaintiff Elizabeth Ryan, as administratrix of the estate of Charles Milot, brought negligence and wrongful death claims against Thomas Hughes stemming from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound which killed Milot. Hughes was a longtime friend of Milot’s family, and upon Milot’s release from the House of Correction, Hughes assisted him in getting situated by loaning him money and employing him to do odd jobs at Hughes’ home. Hughes owned several firearms, which he kept in a chest in a locked room in his home. During the course of his work at Hughes’ home, Milot apparently found the keys to the room in which the guns were stored and removed two handguns and loose cartridges from the house. Milot’s sister urged him to return the guns to Hughes’ home, which Milot agreed to do. Unfortunately, it appears that while Milot was attempting to return the guns to their storage cases, one of them discharged and hit him in the leg, fatally wounding him. Hughes was not home at the time of the accident; he had left Milot alone there to do some repair work.
Milot’s estate filed a suit which included negligence and wrongful death claims against Hughes. A Superior Court judge allowed Hughes’ motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed.
In affirming the Superior Court’s decision, the Appeals Court noted that at the time of his death, Milot had violated several state and federal statutes, including larceny, unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition by a convicted felon, and possession of a firearm without a license. The court further found that Milot’s death resulted from his violation of these statutes, and that such injury was just the type of risk “against which the statute[s] [were] intended to give protection.” As a result, Milot’s negligence claim was barred by his own criminal conduct.
The Court noted that this result is not inconsistent with c. 231, §85, the Massachusetts comparative negligence statute, even though the statute states that “[t]he violation of a criminal statute, ordinance or regulation by a plaintiff which contributed to said injury, death or damage, shall be considered as evidence of negligence of that plaintiff, but the violation of said statute, ordinance or regulation shall not as a matter of law and for that reason alone, serve to bar a plaintiff from recovery.” The court concluded that the statute permits exceptions that are based on public policy considerations.
The Court’s opinion cited other examples where public policy could bar a plaintiff from recovery. Thus, “[a] ‘burglar who breaks his leg while descending the cellar stairs, due to the failure of the owner to replace a missing step’ ... could be denied recovery for public policy considerations.” Likewise, a “student who committed statutory rape violated the law as well as ‘social values and customs’ and ‘may not recover in tort against the school for his own sexual misconduct.’”
The issue of whether a plaintiff’s criminal conduct will bar his recovery on a negligence claim is one that will be decided on a case-by-case basis. As a result, defendants, as part of their initial case assessment, should identify and analyze any criminal statutory violations by a plaintiff to determine what, if any, public policy considerations may be at issue and whether they might bar the plaintiff’s cause of action.