Appeals Court Holds Bicycle Collision Case Barred by the Massachusetts Torts Claims Act
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.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.
The appeals court explained that even if it were to draw all of the inferences in a manner favorable to the plaintiffs, the undisputed facts showed that the principal and the teachers retained the right of control and that the chaperones were subject to their direction and control as a matter of law. Before the field trip, the school held a chaperone meeting in which the chaperones were given guidelines for their duties on the trip. The guidelines stated that the teacher was in charge, and their directions must be followed at all times. The guidelines also instructed the chaperones to follow all safety rules, not leave children alone or unescorted, and keep the groups together.
The plaintiffs conceded that the town maintained general oversight of all of the elements of the field trip, but they contended that the chaperones were independent contractors because they used their own judgment and discretion in supervising the students on the bike trail. However, it was not necessary that the master have the right to control the details of the servant’s activities or his exercise of judgment in carrying out the master’s instructions.
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, even if the chaperones had some latitude to exercise their judgment during the bicycle trip, the appeals court held the town retained the right to control their activities. The chaperones were therefore employees as a matter of law.
The plaintiffs further maintained that the court erred in dismissing their negligence claims against the town under the MTCA. They acknowledged that the MTCA barred them from challenging the town’s chaperone policy, but they contended that their negligent supervision claims were nevertheless permissible under the statute. The defendants maintained that they were immune from suit under the MTCA.
The court held that at best, the plaintiffs showed that the failure to keep the students in a single line was negligent, but the failure to act did not constitute an original cause. The crux of the plaintiffs’ argument remained that the chaperones’ failure to adequately supervise the children led to the complained-of injuries. Nevertheless, the affirmative act that originally caused the plaintiff’s injuries was the child’s negligent operation of the bicycle, which could not be construed as an affirmative act of the defendants.
The essence of the plaintiffs’ claim was that the defendants negligently failed to prevent harm, a claim for which the defendants were immune from suit under the MTCA as a matter of law, the appeals court held.
For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.
If you or a loved one was harmed by another party’s negligence, you may need the assistance of a bicycle accident 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 Courts Holds Police Not Immunized for Canine Attack, Neumann Law Group, July 31, 2017.