When personal injury cases are filed against a government entity, an injured person faces challenges unique to this type of defendant. Case law in Massachusetts and elsewhere grants governmental bodies immunity from civil lawsuits. The idea is that the government body should not be distracted by civil litigation defense so that it can focus on the daily needs of the community. General Laws c. 258, § 10(j) grants public employers immunity from tort actions based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the conduct of a third party. Many exceptions, however, have been also been codified by the legislature in the Commonwealth’s general laws, providing opportunities for injured parties to be granted legal and financial relief. In a recently issued case (16-P-1308), the Appeals Court reviewed the defendant city’s argument that it was shielded from liability under sovereign immunity.
This case was filed after a teenager died from drowning in the swimming pool at the local high school. The teen had left his home at 8:00 in the morning to go to the school to turn in paperwork for the upcoming school year. The school was not open on this date. Security cameras revealed that a little after 10:00 AM, the teen was inside the school in a hallway close to the pool. The footage revealed he was in the weight room and then the girls’ locker room, which has a door that exits directly to the swimming pool. At 5:30 PM that day, a swim coach found the teen’s body at the bottom of the pool. Emergency personnel pronounced the teen to be dead at the scene.
The estate of the teen alleged he suffered a wrongful death due to the city’s negligent maintenance of school property, and the site itself was an attractive nuisance. The complaint specifically alleged that the doors and locks to the pool area were not properly secured. The city claimed sovereign immunity and sought dismissal, alleging the exception did not apply in this situation. The trial court agreed with the estate’s argument that this fell under the exception found in G.L. c. 258 § 10(j), which states that sovereign immunity does not apply when there is negligent maintenance of public property.