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On Murder (and Suicide) Houses

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Apparently a couple in Bowmanville are suing over the purchase of a house which turned out to be the location of a 1996 double homicide (the Toronto Star article is here).  And since nobody asked me, here are my comments about this type of lawsuit ... the legal side of things, at least.  Short answer ... I don't think it's not an impossible case for them to win, but it looks like a tough one.

 

I've recently touched on the issue of defects in houses, and how that can effect a sale (here).  To expand on that a bit, and summarize, the law when a buyer receives a house they have an issue with typically touches on the following points:

  1. The first thing to look at is the actual written documents.  Have they breached a term of the agreement?
  2. If there is no explicit clause in the agreement, did the seller misrepresent anything when they sold the property?  This includes looking at the Seller Property Information Sheet that many sellers are asked to fill out these days.
  3. Was the defect a "latent" (i.e. hidden) defect that they seller knew about, or was it a "patent" defect that would have been obvious?
  4. Was it a material defect?  Minor defects, even if they are latent, are not likely to give rise to a successful claim.  It's one thing to find serious mold issues behind a wall.  It's another to find out that there's a small scratch in the hardwood in the corner of a room.
  5. What losses did the buyer suffer, or what is the cost to fix the defect?  This is hinted at in the Toronto Star article, as it looks like the buyer is suing to recover any loss in value they suffer in having to sell a property when they disclose the history.

This is over simplified, but these are the big issues that will typically be at play.

Murder houses (or haunted houses, for that matter - see the American case of Stambovsky v. Ackley for a famous case on this) fall require the same analysis as any other defect issue.  So lets look at the points above, to see what they say about murder houses:

  1. It's unlikely that the agreement dealt with past murders, since the standard OREA agreement of purchase and sale doesn't deal with this type of issue.  There are, however, some other jurisdictions that could arguably cover this (I have a vague recollection of having seen an old agreement that had a clause about suicides in it, but Google isn't finding anything for me on this).  If someone was particularly concerned about this issue, there's no reason why they couldn't put it into the agreement of purchase and sale, but I doubt that happened here.
  2. Again, I doubt that the buyer asked, or the seller voluntarily gave, any representations about no murders having been committed in the property.  The standard SPIS form certainly doesn't talk about murders.
  3. The most likely area the buyer would have a potential argument is that the past history of the house is a "latent defect" that the seller ought to have disclosed.  If it was something that was known to the seller, then the question will be whether the history of the house was something that was "latent" - i.e. could the buyer have found out about it with a reasonable amount of due diligence.
  4. Whether the defect was a "material defect" is another potential issue for the buyer.  The defect has to be objective, rather than subjective - it isn't enough for this buyer to say that the history of the house is a big issue; they have to show that an objective person would agree with that.1
  5. Whether there were any losses is often a case specific issue.  I'm somewhat skeptical that a 16 year old murder, that does not seem to have much notoriety, would affect the value of the house.  But I'm sure there are others that might disagree.  This overlaps with the "material defect" issue above, and I expect that the buyers would need a real estate expert to give an opinion that murders like the one in question noticeably affect the value of a house.

All that being said, this is not a common issue for the courts.  I did a quick search, and the only reported case I can find dealing with a death house lawsuit is a Quebec Small Claims case called Knight c. Dionne, 2006 QCCQ 1260 (link is to an english translation).  This case dealt with a seller whose son had committed suicide in the house.  When the buyer found this out from a neighbour after the sale closed, she sued for damages.  The judge dismissed the claim, and although Quebec law is often much different than in the rest of Canada, the following quotes show that the judge was alive to the same sort of considerations we would have in Ontario:

[44] It may be that, for some individuals, including the plaintiff and her spouse, the fact that a death—especially a death in tragic circumstances—has occurred in a home constitutes a subjective obstacle to the purchase or occupation of this house.

[45] In such a case, it appears to us that it is up to buyers to ask specific questions reflecting the phobias, fears, or other subjective considerations that could, in their view, interfere with their full enjoyment of a building or even with their purchase of the home in the first place. Once such a question is asked, the seller’s obligation to make full disclosure is heightened, and the seller must not induce erroneous consent through silence or a failure to disclose an element that appears to be important to the buyer, at the risk of having the validity of the sale contested in cases where the other party would not have contracted or would have contracted on different terms had all the information been known (article 1401, C.C.Q.).

[46] The Court is of the opinion that the events and facts of the life of the residents of a residential property cannot normally be considered to be liable to significantly influence the consent of the adverse party, unless there have been questions asked about those events and facts.

[47] A death, suicide, or even a murder in a house cannot be considered to be something the seller is obliged to disclose to the buyer,[3] just as there is no obligation to disclose domestic violence, trespasses, births, marriages, baptisms, or other life events, whether happy or sad, that may have occurred there.

[48] This conclusion appears obvious to us, because if the compulsory disclosure of facts or events in the lives of the residents that are liable to significantly influence the buyer’s decision became a rule governing the sale of residential buildings, it would be extremely difficult to determine where the line should be drawn, and this could create a risk of unnecessary uncertainty.

[49] Would sellers have to disclose domestic violence or domestic arguments? And if so, starting at what level of violence? Could the divorce or separation of the sellers be a factor that affects the value of a house and therefore important to disclose so that the buyer can make an informed decision?

[50] In the case of a death, could the value of the residence be affected differently depending on whether the death had occurred suddenly, during sleep or after a long illness, or as the result of a suicide or a murder? And would the obligation to disclose vary accordingly?

[51] The Court has a great deal of difficulty in agreeing that elements whose importance depends on sensitivity, phobias, sentiments, or purely personal and subjective apprehensions that are not related to the quality of the building should be subject to compulsory disclosure.

[52] Imposing such rules would place an impossible burden on the shoulders of the seller in assessing which of the events that had occurred in the house might be important in the mind of the buyer and therefore of consequence in terms of his decision.

[53] That is why it seems more logical to us that it should be buyers who have the obligation to ask questions that will enable them to ascertain that nothing that would prevent their full enjoyment had occurred in the house.

This seems to be the type of analysis that could be expected of an Ontario judge in a similar case.  Unless the buyers can show that the murder was so notorious and so horrific that an objective person would pay less for the house, they may be in trouble in this case.


1 For example, it has been held that a nude beach next door to a house is not a defect, since it must be more than simply a subjective opinion as to whether something is a defect.

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