Corbin v. Buchanan

In Corbin v. Buchanan, 163 Vt. 141, 657 A.2d 170 (1994), a seven-year-old boy died in a fire in his father's apartment in the Town of Brattleboro. Shortly before this incident, the town enacted a housing code pursuant to 24 V.S.A. chapter 123. In relevant part, the code required the inspection of buildings and the enforcement of orders to correct dangerous conditions. However, unless a building was new, the town would enforce its code only in response to specific complaints. Soon after the code was enacted, in response to complaints about plumbing, wiring and sewer problems, the town sent an inspector to the decedent's father's apartment. The inspector noticed that there was no smoke detector in the apartment, but took no further action, instead limiting his investigation to the scope of the complaints. Shortly thereafter, the boy died in a fire. His estate sued the town, arguing that the town was negligent for failing to enforce its code because the inspector did not require the decedent's father or the landlord to install a smoke detector. The town filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that its failure to enforce its code created no private right of action. The trial court denied the motion, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The Court reversed, holding that an individual plaintiff may not recover in tort against a municipality for its failure to enforce an ordinance whose purpose is protection of the public as a whole. See id. at 143, 657 A.2d at 172. In so holding, the Court first noted that, under the common law, a private citizen has no cause of action against a municipality for failure to enforce its ordinances. See id. at 144-45, 657 A.2d at 172-73. Next, the Court concluded that, in enacting 24 V.S.A. chapter 123, the Vermont Legislature did not intend to create such a cause of action. See id. at 146, 657 A.2d at 173-74 ("The social, fiscal, tax, and public policy implications of a statute creating a private right of action based on a town's adoption of building code regulations would be enormous, and there is no indication in this record that the Legislature contemplated any such consequences."). Finally, the Court noted that the ordinance at issue expressly provided for the safety of the general public, and that, "if allowed under its charter, the Town itself might have created a private right of action," but did not do so. Id. at 146, 657 A.2d at 174. The Court also noted that the ordinance at issue in Corbin expressly prohibited a private cause of action against the town. See id. at 147, 657 A.2d at 174.