Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for State Following Mental Hospital Rape

A plaintiff identified only as “Jane J.” filed suit against the state of Massachusetts under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA). She alleged that while she was involuntarily committed to a state psychiatric hospital, a male patient raped her while she was in the recreation room. The issue before the Massachusetts Court of Appeals was whether the hospital’s failure to segregate its patients’ use of the recreation room by gender established legal causation for the rape. The appeals court concluded that it did not and accordingly affirmed the order of summary judgment for the state.

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In March 2009, Jane J. was committed to the state hospital for a competency evaluation after being charged with assault and battery, pursuant to Massachusetts General Law Section 15. In her lawsuit, Jane J. alleged that roughly a month into her commitment, a fellow patient raped her in the common room.

Like Jane J., the male patient was also involuntarily committed to the hospital, based on a criminal charge. While he had a criminal history, a background check did not suggest that the assailant posed a risk of committing sexual violence.

In December 2011, Jane J. filed suit, arguing that the state’s negligence caused her rape, subsequent pregnancy, and miscarriage. The state moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to immunity pursuant to section 10(j) of the MTCA. The lower court agreed and granted summary judgment for the state.

On appeal, the plaintiff alleged that by opening the common room to both genders, the hospital was an original cause of her rape. While the appeals court agreed that the state has a unique responsibility for the safety of patients who have been committed to its psychiatric facilities, the court did not believe that merely by allowing both genders access to a common room, the hospital caused the plaintiff’s rape and related injuries. The court reasoned that the Massachusetts Supreme Court has not construed section 10(j) to encompass such attenuated causation.

In affirming, the court emphasized that the record clearly demonstrated that the hospital checked its patients’ criminal histories prior to admission. The hospital came to the rational conclusion that the perpetrator in this case did not pose a risk of sexual violence, nor did he appear to require intensive monitoring.

Furthermore, the record showed that hospital employees performed safety checks in the recreation room twice an hour. Nothing in the record suggested that the recreation room made a rape more foreseeable. Jane J.’s claim could be characterized only as a failure to prevent the male perpetrator from being in a physical position to sexually attack her, which the court held was not sufficient to overcome the immunity provided by the section under the circumstances.

The primary purpose of section 10(j), the appeals court explained, is to bar liability for failures to prevent or mitigate harms caused by third parties. Here, the hospital’s decision to not segregate its patients’ use of the common room by gender, the court reasoned, did not cause Jane J.’s rape by another patient.

Accordingly, the appeals court concluded that summary judgment was appropriate and affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you have suffered from sexual assault, you may need the assistance of a sexual assault lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

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Massachusetts Appeals Court Holds State Occupational Safety Regulations Appropriately Excluded From Negligence Trial, Neumann Law Group, April 14, 2017.

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