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Fireworks: An Explosion of Liability?

sparklerAs warmer weather approaches and festivities loom on the horizon, one expects many different sights that accompany the celebrations in the coming months.  Often fireworks are considered vital to a celebration in the spring and summer months.  Supervised displays of fireworks by municipalities, fair associations, amusement parks and other organizations are authorized under Massachusetts law.  However, private uses of fireworks are still prohibited under the rules of the Commonwealth and punishable by fines and even jail time.

Under Massachusetts General Law Ch. 148 § 39:

No person shall sell, or keep or offer for sale, or have in his possession, or under his control, or use, or explode, or cause to explode, any combustible or explosive composition or substance, or any combination of such compositions or substances, or any other article, which was prepared for the purpose of producing a visible or audible effect by combustion, explosion, deflagration, or detonation.

For the purposes of this section the word “fireworks” shall include compositions, substances or other articles and shall also include blank cartridges or toy cannons in which explosives are used, the type of toy balloon which requires fire underneath to propel the same, firecrackers, cherry bombs, silver salutes, M-80’s, torpedoes, sky-rockets, Roman candles, sparklers, rockets, wheels, colored fires, fountains, mines, serpents, or other fireworks of like construction or any fireworks containing any explosive or flammable compound, or any tablets or other device containing any explosive substance.

While the criminal penalties are listed in the statute, there is no mention for liability for a civil action brought against a person, or corporation, for fireworks causing damage to another that originate on their property.

On July 4, 1996, Thomas Berube had a party at his home for approximately fifty individuals.  After the party went on, unidentified individuals set off a fireworks display in the backyard of Mr. Berube.  Mr. and Mrs. Berube were aware of the fireworks but it was unclear whether they provided the fireworks or knew the identity of the individuals putting on the show.  As the display went on, one of the guests of the party, Dominic Luoni, moved approximately 100 feet away from the light show.  As Mr. Luoni walked away, he heard an explosion and felt something hit him in the left eye.  As a result, he was left with a permanent defect in his vision due to the fireworks on Mr. Berube’s property.

After bringing suit against the Defendant homeowner, the court entered judgment in favor of the Defendant.  The Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts ultimately held that social hosts (such as the Defendant) owe no duty to protect a guest from negligent use of fireworks by unidentified guests where the host did not provide, nor control, the firework display.  The court noted that, as a general rule, a landowner does not owe a duty to take affirmative steps to protect against dangerous or unlawful acts of third persons.  The court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that homeowners are in a special position of authority with respect to their guests and their ability to control those guests.  The court articulated its position by rejecting claims of liability against social hosts, predicated on negligence, in the absence of a recognized legal basis requiring them to protect guests.

Had a special relationship existed between the Plaintiff and the Defendant the case may have turned out differently.  The court detailed that liability may apply if a special relationship existed based on a plaintiff’s reasonable expectations and reliance, “that a defendant will anticipate harmful acts of third persons and take appropriate measures to protect the plaintiff from harm.”  The sort of “special relationship” may be similar to a hotel and its guests, a college and its students, or a tavern and its patrons.

To learn more about this issue, please check out the portion of our site dedicated to premises liability. If you are interested in reading more about the case mentioned above, please see Luoni v. Berube.  If you or a family member have been injured on the property of another, our office can help you pursue your claim. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.