Who is Responsible if an Injury Occurs at a Public Space in Massachusetts?

As school and extra-curricular activities pick up around the state of Massachusetts, concern over serious and permanent injuries may arise among parents. Even with the best of care and protective gear, accidents can happen on sports fields or while in a bus on the way to an activity. No parent wants to see any type of harm befall his or her child, but knowledge of what options are available in the event of an injury is essential when there is a catastrophic injury to the head, neck, or spine. Accountability is also important if a person or facility failed to maintain safe premises as required by law. A civil action may provide the remedies you need by holding an at-fault party responsible for negligence and receiving payments for the money spent on medical expenses.

One of the first steps of a personal injury suit is determining who is responsible for the injury. In most auto accident cases, it is a straightforward determination that the driver of the car that caused the harm is the responsible party. In other personal injury suits, several parties can share blame for the injury. In the 2013 Massachusetts case, Moore v. Town of Billerica, the Court looked at whether or not the city should be held accountable for a serious head injury sustained by a child at a public baseball field. The trial court denied the city’s motion for summary judgment, which claimed that it could not be sued due to the protection of sovereign immunity.

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act generally provides governmental entities immunity from suit under the established legal principle of sovereign immunity. The Act, however, also provides exceptions to this immunity, which statutorily provides that a government entity waives the protection when there is the “negligent maintenance of public property” or “failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation.” (See Massachusetts G.L. c. 258 § 10(j )(3).) In Moore, the injured party was a child who was at a baseball field with her mother and was hit by a baseball struck outside of the diamond by children playing in a “home run derby.” The park had netting to prevent extraneous balls flying outside the diamond, but the mother of the child argued that the city was negligent in its failure to provide safe premises.

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals looked at cases addressing these exceptions to sovereign immunity. In two cases, sovereign immunity was upheld, even when a school principal was aware of the strong possibility of violent bullying and when lifeguards were absent from duty. The Court assessed these cases and reasoned that, even if there were numerous options city employees could have used to prevent harm, immunity still stands. The Court further stated that the exception pertained to the failure to maintain already-existing premises, such as crumbling sidewalks and roads, but did not extend to absent structures or signs that could have been put in place. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city and overruled the trial court’s denial of summary judgment.

When injuries occur on public property, it can be tricky to determine whether or not an exception to sovereign immunity is available. The experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the legal knowledge you need to aggressively pursue your case. If you or your child has been injured, contact our office today for a free, confidential consultation at 508.822.6600.

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