Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against City to Proceed

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.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s determination that the complaint was sufficient to survive the city’s motion to dismiss. On appeal, the city argued that the complaint was insufficient because it did not allege the swimming pool itself was negligently maintained, nor did it likewise allege that the doors leading to it were negligently maintained. The Appeals Court dismissed this argument, finding that the doors themselves are necessary to ensure the safety of the pool during unsupervised hours. Maintaining the doors was as essential as maintaining the pool. While the defendant also argued that the exception did not apply because the teen was trespassing, the Appeals Court declined to address the issue at length. The appellate court ruled that the complaint was sufficient to withstand the motion to dismiss, and it affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Filing suit against a governmental entity does not have to be a daunting task. As this case shows, many exceptions to sovereign immunity exist. Experienced premises liability counsel can push back against an argument that a relevant exception does not apply or any claims that the injured party was also negligent. The attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan understand that wrongful death and personal injury cases are emotionally trying, since no legal or financial relief can truly make one “whole.” Our lawyers can aggressively pursue all available damages to hold the negligent party or parties accountable. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 508-822-6600.

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