For starters, there is the principle of sovereign immunity. This holds the government can’t be held liable for negligence unless it specifically grants permission for such action. Most states have a predetermined list of conditions one must meet in order to have a valid case. For example, action can be brought against a government for negligence of a government employee only if that employee was carrying out a ministerial function, as opposed to a discretionary one.
Beyond that, there are often strict notification requirements and short windows in which to inform the entity of the intent to sue and to take certain action to do so. This is true even when the same general statute of limitations is applicable.
But this is not to say these cases are impossible. In fact, they are often necessary when someone has been seriously injured or killed due to the negligence of the government or its employees, and many cases can be successful. However, it is imperative that you have an experienced personal injury attorney to handle your case beginning to end.
The case of Murray v. Town of Hudson highlights some of the challenges plaintiffs may face in asserting government liability for negligence.
According to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court records, plaintiff was a ballplayer with a visiting high school team squaring off against the home team players at a local public park. The park was owned by the town and maintained by the department of public works.
In the midst of the game, plaintiff’s coach asked him to warm up to pitch. To do so, he entered the designated “bullpen” area just behind third base. The bullpen was an area of wooden berms that enclosed the pitching rubber. While completing a follow-through warm-up pitch, plaintiff’s left foot struck the wooden berm and the uneven landing caused him to twist his left knee. It was later determined he suffered a badly torn meniscus requiring two surgeries and extensive physical therapy.
Plaintiff notified the town of the injury and indicated he would be asserting a $100,000 claim for damages for his injuries, pain and suffering and medical expenses. He alleged the town engaged in willful, wanton and reckless conduct by breaching its duty of care to the visiting high school by allowing them to utilize a bullpen that was inherently dangerous. Plaintiff supported this assertion by noting the visitors bullpen was much too narrow, created an uneven landing spot for pitchers and was poorly light. This incident happened during a night game.
Town’s insurer denied the claim and town filed motion for summary judgment, which was granted by trial judge. Plaintiff appealed, and the case was transferred to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by its own motion.
The town asserts the recreational use statute prohibited the negligence claim. That is, because the town allowed the property to be used for public recreation purposes, it could not be held liable for injury. That’s what the trial judge based his ruling on. However in its reversal, the state high court found the town could still be negligent if it provided visiting players with use of a bullpen that was not reasonably safe. Further, it can’t be determined until trial whether that was the case (it is a dispute of fact).
The injury lawsuit has been remanded for trial.
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Murray v. Town of Hudson , Aug. 3, 2015, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
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