Committed to Justice in Boston and Beyond

In a Massachusetts tort case, a prisoner who was incarcerated at FMC Devens filed a pleading captioned as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. He alleged that while he was incarcerated at FCC Butner, prison staff members negligently failed to secure his personal property while he was in the special housing unit. As a result, his property was stolen. On March 3, 2017, he filed with the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP“) an administrative tort claim concerning the loss of his property. The government denied the claim, concluding that there was not any evidence of negligence on the part of any BOP staff member. The plaintiff sought $663.95 in damages.

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The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that the pleading failed both as a habeas and as a tort action. This blog post will focus exclusively on the tort issue.

The Federal Employees Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988, or the “Westfall Act,” 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b), provides that a lawsuit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA“) is the exclusive remedy for property loss, injuries, or death arising or resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the government while acting within the scope of his office.

A Massachusetts farmer owned a dump truck for hauling soil. One morning in April 2009, he was seen at his farm working on the truck. Later that day, he was found dead underneath it, with his clothing caught up in a spinning universal joint (U-joint) that was part of the mechanical system used to tilt the truck. The medical examiner identified the cause of death as accidental asphyxiation.

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As an executrix of his estate, his widow filed a Massachusetts wrongful death action. She sued, among others, Mack Trucks, which manufactured the original version of the truck, and Parker-Hannifin Corporation, which had acquired the assets of Dana Corporation. Dana manufactured a piece of equipment known as a “power take-off” (PTO), which was another part of the system used to tilt the dump body of the truck. In two separate summary judgment rulings, different superior court judges ruled in favor of each of these defendants. The Massachusetts Court of Appeals affirmed the judgments.

On appeal, the plaintiff did not argue that the incomplete vehicle that Mack Trucks sold, or the PTO that Dana sold, contained any design defect. Instead, the gravamen of her claims was that the manufacturers had a duty to warn installers and end users about the dangers posed by the use of unguarded auxiliary drive shafts and U-joints because such future uses were foreseeable. After all, she argued, the transmission of the truck was designed so that it could accept a PTO, and PTOs could be operated to power an auxiliary drive shaft. In fact, the plaintiff maintained that the foreseeability of the risks posed by exposed auxiliary drive shafts and U-joints was best demonstrated by the fact that Mack Trucks and Dana each provided some warning about them (warnings that the plaintiff claimed ultimately were inadequate). In the alternative, the plaintiff argued that even if the defendants did not face an independent legal duty to warn about such dangers, they voluntarily assumed such a duty when they provided their warnings about such uses.

A plaintiff, in his capacity as the personal representative of the estate of a victim, brought a Massachusetts nursing home negligence action against Park, Marion, and Vernon Streets Operating Company, LLC d/b/a Brookline Health Care Center (BHCC), and John Doe Physicians and Jane Doe Nurses. As alleged in the complaint, as a result of the defendants’ negligence, the victim choked to death when she was left unsupervised to eat in the dayroom of the assisted living facility in which she resided.

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The victim was admitted to BHCC in April 2012 for nursing care and rehabilitation after a hospitalization for seizures and falls, and she remained there until her death in May 2014. Throughout this period, she was deemed to be at risk for falls. Her medical records also indicated that she was on a soft diet, customized for her diabetes, and at variable times during her residency at the facility, she required continual supervision while eating, since she was at risk for aspiration. On the morning of May 7, 2014, a resident in the day room alerted the nurses to help the victim, who was holding her chest and in distress. A nurse’s note later in the day said that the victim was seen holding her neck and tapping on her chest and that she became unresponsive as she was being assessed by staff.

When ambulance personnel attempted to insert an endoctracheal tube, they had to remove a silver dollar-sized piece of food before they were able to successfully intubate her. The victim was pronounced dead upon her arrival at Beth Israel Hospital. The cause of death was respiratory distress, secondary to aspiration.

A recent case arose from a bicycle collision on the Cape Cod Rail Trail between a child on a supervised school field trip and a passing cyclist. The injured cyclist and his wife appealed from a Superior Court judgment entered on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing their negligence claims against the town of Williamstown and others. On appeal, the plaintiffs contended that (1) the chaperones who supervised the field trip were not public employees and thus could be held personally liable for their negligence, and (2) the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA) did not preclude their claims against the town. The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment for the defendants in this Massachusetts bicycle accident case.

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The plaintiffs argued that the lower court erred when it concluded that the chaperones supervising the elementary school field trip were public employees as a matter of law. They suggested that the chaperones were independent contractors who had broad discretion in exercising their duties and therefore should not be afforded the liability protections provided by the MTCA.

The test for determining whether an individual is a public employee, the appeals court explained, is the same as that used to establish whether an agent is a servant for whose negligent acts a principal may be liable under the common law doctrine of respondeat superior. The basic question is whether a person is subject to the direction and control of a public employer.

A 28-year-old man was seriously injured when a Somerville resident shot him in the neck, paralyzing him from the neck down. His family filed suit for negligence, arguing that the gun the shooter used had been wrongly returned to the shooter by the Somerville police department and the city of Somerville. The police department had previously confiscated the weapon in the course of revoking the shooter’s license to carry. The Massachusetts Court of Appeals concluded that the city’s conduct was “based upon” licensing activity described in section 10(e) of the Massachusetts Torts Claims Act (MTCA) and that therefore the city was exempt from liability in this Massachusetts personal injury case.

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The victim was shot outside the shooter’s parents’ home in November 2013. The victim was visiting one of the building’s tenants and preparing to walk home when the shooter came out and confronted him and two other men. The victim had a bullet lodged in his neck and was hospitalized for a prolonged period. He’s currently a quadriplegic.

At the resulting criminal trial, the shooter’s lawyer maintained the shooting was in self-defense. He claimed that the victim and the two other men would not let the shooter back into his parents’ home and attacked him when he threatened to call the police. But prosecutors argued that a cellphone video made by the shooter showed he escalated the incident and made attempts to make it appear to be self-defense.

A defendant and a third-party plaintiff, C M & B, Inc. (CMB), a general contractor, appealed from a judgment dismissing its indemnification and related claims against its subcontractors Ferreira Concrete Forms, Inc. (Ferreira), and Laserdig. The trial judge ruled, among other things, that the indemnification claim was barred by a governing Rhode Island statute. The Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed and affirmed.

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In 2009, CMB, having contracted with a property owner to construct a retail store in Rhode Island, subcontracted certain concrete work to Ferreira and certain underground utility work to Laserdig. The subcontracts specified that they were to be construed in accordance with Rhode Island law, and they included indemnification clauses. The owner separately contracted with Meade Construction, Inc. (Meade), to perform certain roofing work.

On September 13, 2009, just as Meade was about to commence work, a tree fell on the partially completed building. Since time was of the essence, CMB asked Laserdig if its on-site personnel could assist in clearing the tree, and Laserdig agreed. Although Ferreira had largely completed its concrete work and had no employees on the site that day, Ferreira and Laserdig were under common ownership and sometimes loaned each other their employees as circumstances required. Accordingly, the common owner decided to loan a Ferreira employee to Laserdig in order to assist the other Laserdig employees, as well as CMB and Meade, in clearing the tree. In the course of this work, Meade placed a ladder against the building but did not sufficiently secure it, nor did CMB safety-check it. As the worker climbed the ladder, it slid to one side, causing the worker to fall and suffer injuries.

A $20 million federal lawsuit has been filed against the NFL and the New England Patriots on behalf of the former fiancee and daughter of Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide this year while serving a murder conviction. The lawsuit was filed the same day it was revealed that Hernandez had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

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Doctors at Boston University studied the brain of the former Patriots tight end and determined that Hernandez had Stage 3 CTE, an advanced form of the neurodegenerative disease. CTE, which can only currently be diagnosed in an autopsy, can be caused by repeated head trauma and leads to symptoms like violent mood swings, depression, and other cognitive difficulties. Hernandez’s CTE was allegedly the most severe case of CTE that the Boston University researchers had ever seen for someone of his age. Advanced stage 3 of CTE is usually found in the median age of 67-year-old men.

Beginning in 2005, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist found CTE in the brains of diseased NFL players Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, and Tom McHale. Between 2008 and 2010, the bodies of twelve former professional American football players were diagnosed with CTE postmortem by Dr. Ann McKee.

A plaintiff, while working as a police officer, responded to a call at the home of the defendant. The call indicated that the defendant had locked himself inside the house and was threatening to hurt himself. After arriving at the home and making numerous requests of the defendant to enter, the plaintiff ultimately attempted to kick the door down and was seriously injured as a result. He alleged that his injuries were proximately caused by the defendant’s negligence. He did not make any allegations relating to conditions on the premises.

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The common-law firefighter’s rule provides that a firefighter or police officer who enters private property in the course of his employment duties generally cannot bring a civil action against the property owner for injuries sustained as a result of a defect in the premises. The plaintiff appealed from the trial court judgment in favor of the defendant. In granting the defendant’s motion to strike, the trial court concluded that the firefighter’s rule precluded the plaintiff’s sole claim, which was rooted in ordinary negligence. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Connecticut concluded that the firefighter’s rule should not extend beyond claims of premises liability. The court therefore reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded the case to the trial court.

On appeal, the plaintiff asserted that the trial court incorrectly granted the motion to strike because his claim was not barred by the firefighter’s rule. Specifically, he claimed that the issue was controlled by the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in Levandoski v. Cone, in which the firefighter’s rule was limited to claims of premises liability.

A Connecticut resident filed suit for negligence after injuring herself while walking to the Danbury Hospital parking lot. She prevailed during a bench trial, and the defendant appealed. The Connecticut Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, which may be interesting to Massachusetts slip and fall claimants as well.

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In June 2010, the victim and her daughter were visiting the victim’s husband, who was being treated at Danbury Hospital. After their visit, they exited the hospital’s main building and walked onto a walkway leading toward the parking lot. They were familiar with this walkway, since they had made this same trip several times in the past.

While they were walking along the pathway, the victim hit something with her foot and fell to the ground. As a result of the fall, she sustained injuries to her right foot and ankle. It later was determined that she had broken her big toe and damaged the fifth metatarsal of her right foot. Within minutes of the fall, she was taken to Danbury’s emergency room, where she was examined and treated for her injuries. As a result of her fall, she experienced chronic lower back pain from a protruded disc that required several epidural steroid injections and, eventually, a surgical decompression procedure. The lower court ruled for the victim following a bench trial.

In a medical malpractice action not unlike some Massachusetts medical malpractice cases, the defendant Emergency Medicine Physicians of New London County, LLC, appealed from the judgment of the trial court after a jury verdict was rendered in favor of the plaintiff. On appeal, the defendant claimed that there was insufficient evidence supporting the jury’s verdict and award of noneconomic damages. Specifically, it claimed that the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence for the jury (1) to find that the defendant’s negligence caused the death of the decedent, and (2) to award $150,000 in damages for the destruction of the decedent’s capacity to carry on and enjoy life’s activities. The Connecticut Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

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On November 29, 2008, the decedent was found unresponsive and was brought to a hospital emergency department, where she was treated for a suspected drug overdose by the attending emergency department physician. After the decedent’s vital signs improved and stabilized, she was discharged and returned to the home of a friend, where she was found unresponsive the next morning and was pronounced deceased.

The plaintiff alleged that the hospital was vicariously liable for the medical malpractice of the doctor in treating the decedent for a suspected drug overdose. The plaintiff claimed that the doctor’s discharge of the decedent after only four and one-half hours of observation was premature in that the doctor should have kept the decedent under medical monitoring for 24 hours, which is the period of time during which the fatal side effects of methadone toxicity may occur. If the decedent had remained under medical monitoring for the full 24 hours, the fatal overdose side effects she experienced after her discharge would have been treated, and her eventual death from methadone toxicity would have been averted.

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