The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a man who rented out his Lynnfield mansion to people who then threw a massive party that ended with a guest shot to death was not negligent, in part because he wasn't there and had given control of the property over to the five men who'd rented the place.
The court concluded that Alexander Styller was not negligent because it was a third party who murdered Keivan Heath early on May 29, 2016 while Styller was staying elsewhere.
In a separate ruling, the court rejected Styller's suit against the town of Lynnfield, which, following the murder, drastically restricted the ability of homeowners to rent out their properties on Airbnb and similar sites. Styller continued his suit even after selling the property; the court said the current owner could take up the question, but it laid out reasons why it was rejecting Styller's zoning case regardless of his owning the property.
According to the court's summary of the case, five men rented the 5,000-square-foot house for the night and that, rather than the college reunion they told Styller they would be holding, threw a large and widely advertised house party that attracted upwards of 100 people, including Keivan Heath, a Randolph resident, as well as two off-duty Boston police officers.
Heath was shot twice in the chest; his murder remains unsolved.
His mother, Sharon Heath-Latson, sued both Styller and the five men who rented his house for the night - only one, Woody Victor, identified by name - for negligence.
The court said it first had to determine whether the home owner had "a duty of reasonable care" to Heath, then concluded he did not, because the legal definition of that term does not include actions of a third party, in this case the still unknown murderer. Further, nothing in Styller's experiences with renting his house on Airbnb and HomeAway suggested somebody would shoot somebody else to death on the property.
The court acknowledged there are exceptions to this rule, but said that is only where there is a "special relationship" between the plaintiff and the defendant. And that, the court said, is where Heath-Latson's case falls apart, because there was no relationship at all between her son and the home owner - her son did not know Styller and he showed up at party thrown by the people who had rented the house, not by Styller.
Here, the complaint alleges no facts suggesting that the defendant had a duty to protect the decedent from wrongdoing of a third party. Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that that short-term rentals have "significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large," it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime. The complaint alleges that the defendant had rented his residence on several other occasions for various events but does not allege that any incidents of violence occurred during those rentals that would have put the defendant on notice of a risk of violence during Victor's event. See Belizaire v. Furr, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 299, 304-305(2015) (landlord owed no duty to shooting victim where no evidence of prior gun violence on property prior to incident).
Further, the plaintiff did not allege that anything in Victor's background posed a risk of violence. Nor did she point to any information the defendant had about Victor's planned event that would have made the shooting foreseeable. Although the complaint alleges that Victor advertised the event widely, that police had been called to the residence,and that,by 1 A. M. , more than one hundred people were present, it does not go on to allege that the defendant was aware of any of these facts.
Finally, the complaint does not allege a connection between the shooter and the defendant. In fact, it makes no allegations regarding the perpetrator or the circumstances of the shooting whatsoever. Cf. Lev, 457 Mass. at 242-243 (special relationship between person posing risk and person who can prevent harm may give rise to duty).
As the plaintiff has not alleged facts demonstrating that the defendant should have foreseen the risk of harm caused by a third party to lawful visitors, she has failed to establish that the defendant had a duty to protect against such harm.
Heath-Latson's attorney also argued that short-term rental owners share the same responsibility as hotels and restaurants to keep guests safe, but the state's highest court said that argument "misses the mark," at least in this case, because unlike hotels, which maintain full control of their property at all times, in this case, the house owner had essentially ceded control of the house to the five men who'd rented it - Styller spent the night elsewhere.
Aside from the fact that there is no allegation of any relationship between the defendant and the decedent other than the fact that the decedent was shot and killed on property owned by the defendant, perhaps the biggest difference between the relationship between a business establishment and its customers and the defendant's relationship to the decedent is that the defendant had no control over the premises during the rental period. As the plaintiff acknowledged in the complaint, at the start of the rental period the defendant gave Victor "sole and exclusive possession of his [r]esidence for the three-day stay, with no visits, monitoring, or supervision by [the defendant]." In short, aside from ensuring that the property was in a reasonably safe condition when he turned the premises over to Victor, see Mounsey, 363 Mass. at 708-709, the defendant owed no additional duty of care to the decedent.