DATE: November 21, 2002
FROM: Melissa A. Ashburn, Legal Consultant
RE: Demolition party wall inquiry
You have advised me of a situation which has arisen in which the city wants to demolish an old building that shares a party wall with an adjoining building. My research reveals that any party who undertakes a demolition of a structure with a party wall faces liability for any damage done to the wall or the adjoining structure, no matter what preventative measures are taken.
In Carroll Blake Const. Co. v. Boyle, et. al, 203 S.W. 945 (Tenn. 1918), the Tennessee Supreme Court first addressed the issue of liability for damage to a party wall, which resulted in the collapse of a building. Pursuant to an ordinance of the City of Memphis, notice was given to the plaintiffs that the adjoining property would be demolished and excavated, and they should take action to shore up the wall in question. There is a lot of discussion in the opinion concerning the definition of a party wall, but it is the Court’s opinion about the city ordinance and notice to the adjoining property owners which is important to this issue. The Court ruled that the city ordinance under which the plaintiffs received notice to fortify the wall to prevent damage was insufficient to relieve the defendants from liability for damages which did occur.
At issue in the case McCurley v. City of Jackson, 1998 WL 4706 (Tenn. App.), is whether a contractor hired by the city was negligent in his demolition of a condemned building which shared a common wall with adjoining property owners. The director of the city codes department believed that the contractor was going to remove the condemned building “piece-by-piece,” so as to prevent damage to the neighboring building, but the contractor instead used a bulldozer which caused substantial damage. The Court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to a jury trial on the issue of the contractor’s negligence and damages.
It should be noted that the statute of limitations in Tennessee for damage done to property is three years. The adjoining property owner would have that period of time to file suit for any damage done to a party wall. Some damages involving a structure’s foundation may not be evident for months, so one who undertakes to demolish a building with a party wall will be exposed to potential liability claims for many months beyond the conclusion of the construction activities.
Buying the neighboring property would appear to be the very best solution for your City. Otherwise, the city should undertake every effort possible to prevent damage to the party wall.