Articles Posted in Government Immunity

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 plaintiff filed suit for negligence under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (Act) against the Massachusetts State Police after being attacked by a trained police dog in a parking lot. A state trooper who was an experienced dog handler had been in pursuit of a criminal through that parking lot. The plaintiff sued the police, alleging that the trooper’s conduct in releasing the police dog to capture a criminal in a public space created a foreseeable risk of harm to an innocent bystander. The lower court disagreed and granted summary judgment to the state police, reasoning that the plaintiff’s negligence claim was barred by the immunity provisions of the Act. The plaintiff appealed.

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In reversing, the appeals court first explained that the Act exempts a public employer from liability for any claim based on the performance of a discretionary duty by a public employee, regardless of whether that discretion is abused. The parties agreed that the state police was a public employer immunized from liability by the discretionary function exemption in the Act.

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