Dismissal of School Negligence Case Affirmed by Massachusetts Appellate Court

Lawsuits against government entities used to be very difficult to pursue.  For a long time, government entities were protected by sovereign immunity, a doctrine founded on the idea the “king”  could not be bothered with litigation.  Eventually, the Commonwealth’s legislature changed the reliance on this precedent by enacting the Tort Claims Act, G. L. c. 258, in 1978.  This allowed many more opportunities for lawsuits when employees of state or local government act in a negligent manner while performing work for the city or state government.  However, this statute still provides protection to the government through exceptions for allowed claims.  G. L. c. 258, § 10(j), inserted by St. 1993, c. 495, § 57 bars claims asserting a government employee acted, or failed to act, to prevent or diminish harm, including violent or tortious conduct of a third person, if it did not originate from a public employer or public employee. 

In a recent Massachusetts personal injury action, 17-P-230, the Massachusetts Appeals Court considered a student’s appeal from the dismissal of his negligence action against the school.  The student was injured during field hockey practice by another teammate, who struck her with a field hockey stick. The injury occurred during a drill supervised by a volunteer coach, but not the head coach.  The head coach was on the field but was not actively supervising the drill.  No warnings or techniques were provided to the student athletes to avoid injury.   The student was struck in the face, losing consciousness and two teeth.  The head coach did not implement concussion protocol, nor did he take any steps to stay with her and provide care.  As a result, the student had to have dental surgery and suffered academically due to a concussion.  The student and her parents filed suit, alleging the school failed to properly train and supervise the coaches and other athletes who were present during the incident, failed to provide adequate post-injury monitoring and assistance, and failed to create and use an academic reentry plan after the injuries.  The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding G. L. c. 258, § 10(j) precluded suit against the school, a government entity. 

On appeal, the student and her parents argued the school caused the original action when the head coach allowed an untrained volunteer coach to supervise a new drill and left the field unsupervised with inadequate instructions.  The appellate court found the behavior to be omissions rather than affirmative actions, as required by the statute.  The court assessed the plaintiffs’ assertion to be an attempt to hold the school liable for failing to ensure the student’s safety during field hockey practice.

The plaintiffs also argued that the school was negligent by failing to follow proper concussion protocol and that this was an independent act of negligence.  The court pointed to the plain language of § 10(j), which precludes liability in a situation like this when it was another student who caused the main injury.  The court looked at another case for guidance, Anderson v. Gloucester, which held a claim for negligent misidentification was barred.  In that lawsuit, a police officer misidentified a fire victim, but the court held the city could not be held liable because the original cause of the harm to the plaintiffs was the fire, which was caused by someone else. 

The final argument offered on appeal was that the judge erred in dismissing the complaint because the intervention fell within the exception to § 10(j) in § 10(j)(2).  The immunity fails if the intervention of a public employee causes the victim to be in a worse position than she was before the intervention.  Even though intervention is not defined in this statute, the Appeals Court relied on the traditional meaning, which is an affirmative act on the part of the intervener.  Again, the court determined the behavior of the coaches that day was omissions instead of affirmative actions.    Since the claims did not meet the requirements of § 10(j), nor did they fall into one of the exceptions to the statute, the Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal by the trial court. 

Holding all parties accountable for an injury or death can quickly become complicated.  The experienced attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the Massachusetts personal injury experience you need to assist you with your case.  Call today at 508.822.6600.

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