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In some states, there are many building codes and laws that are left up to individual counties and municipalities for enaction and enforcement. In Missouri, for instance, there is no statewide law requiring smoke detectors to be present in all residences. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan, through the Michigan Residential Code, requires smoke alarms to be placed in homes: in each sleeping room; outside of each separate sleeping area; and on each floor of the home, excluding uninhabitable attics. While Missouri may not have a statewide smoke detector requirement, many counties and municipalities have codified smoke detector regulations on their own. These codes, however, are rarely written by the county or municipality itself. Instead, the local government will oftentimes fully or partially adopt a version of the International Fire Code, International Building Code, and many other international code manuals. Therefore, knowing which codes apply to your property is essential to remaining in compliance with the law.

The International Fire Code is a lengthy document that will often refer to other international code manuals in its explanations. For example, the City of St. Louis has adopted the following building codes: 2018 International Building Code; 2018 International Existing Building Code; 2018 International Residential Code; 2018 International Energy Conservation Code; 2018 International Property Maintenance Code; 2018 International Fire Code; 2009 Uniform Plumbing Code; 2018 International Mechanical Code; 2018 International Fuel Gas Code; and 2018 National Electrical Code. As is apparent from the City of St. Louis’ enacted building codes, understanding a county or municipality’s code can be quite difficult and time-consuming.

For building owners, understanding and complying with local codes and regulations is imperative to avoid potential liability down the road. Missouri courts have yet to definitively rule whether a building owner is negligent per se for failing to comply with a local ordinance requiring smoke detectors. However, that does not mean lawsuits will not be pursued. In 2016, a lawsuit was filed against an Ohio landlord on behalf of tenants that died in a house fire where smoke detectors were not in use, in violation of local code. The case, Mutersbaugh v. Laidig, settled for $360,000.00. In a Missouri case from 2014, Shelisa Thomas v. Terracap SC Partners L.P. et al, the plaintiff in the case alleged negligence per se citing a violation of the International Fire Code and other applicable Kansas City ordinances. Among the allegations was failure on the part of the defendant landlord to maintain a working smoke detector on the property. While the case settled, the allegation of negligence per se could be troublesome for building owners that fail to comply with their local building codes.

For a court to accept a negligence per se claim, the plaintiff must show that a law was violated, that the law was intended to prevent the type of injury that occurred, and that the plaintiff was in the class of persons intended to be protected by the law. Here is a potential application of negligence per se to a claim involving failure to comply with a local building code. First, the tenant would need to show that the landlord violated a local ordinance by not providing an operable smoke detector. Second, the tenant would need to show that the law was meant to prevent injury caused by fire. Finally, the tenant would have to show that tenants are meant to be protected by the ordinance.

Without a comprehensive understanding of local building codes, building owners are susceptible to potentially costly and protracted litigation. The lawyers at Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas can help you understand the applicable codes and through our network of experts, architects, and engineers, can assist in a plan to make sure your properties are in compliance.

Article by Will Kernell

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