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Massachusetts Recreational Use Statute and Claims against a Town

Sometimes towns or other government entities can be negligent and cause an injury.  Pursuing a claim against a government entity can be very difficult.  Most claims against a government entity in Massachusetts, including claims against a town, are governed by the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

The Supreme Judicial Court recently determined whether the recreational use statute precludes town liability for injuries to a high school baseball player at a public park.

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In the Hudson high school hosted a varsity baseball game at a public park in Hudson. While warming up in the bullpen, a pitcher on the visiting team injured his knee.  He struck his foot on the wooden landscape timber or berm in the bullpen area and twisted his knee, resulting in a torn meniscus and two surgeries to repair it.  A former town employee had designed and built the bullpen, and the town and students maintained it.

The plaintiff sent the required notice letter to the town board of selectmen, demanding $100,000.  He alleged willful, wanton, or reckless conduct, a breach of the duty of reasonable care, and negligence by the town. He claimed the bullpen was inherently dangerous because it was too narrow, the wooden timbers created an uneven surface, and the area was poorly lit.

The plaintiff subsequently filed suit, again alleging a breach of the duty of reasonable care and willful, wanton, and reckless conduct. The trial court granted the town's motion for summary judgment, holding that the recreational use statute barred the negligence claim.  The plaintiff appealed, and the Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case to itself on its own motion.

The recreational use statute provides that any person who lawfully allows the public to use land for recreational purposes without charging a fee is not liable for personal injury or property damage, unless the property owner engages in willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.  Massachusetts General Laws c. 21 ยง 17C.  The definition of person under the statute includes a government body.  A town can, therefore, be protected from liability by the recreational use statute.

The Supreme Judicial Court noted that the intent of the recreational use statute was to encourage property owners to allow the public to use property for recreational purposes.  It was not intended to reduce a school's responsibility to provide safe premises for school functions and related activities.  The Supreme Judicial Court found that the recreational use statute does not limit the standard of care owed by a school to its students as a result of their relationship.  Although the recreational use statute is applicable to town-owned property, the court found that it does not preclude liability claims brought against the town by students in that town's public schools who are injured while participating in school-related activities.

The town seemed to distinguish the visiting player from the students in its own schools. The town argued that it did not have a special relationship with the visiting player, so the recreational use statute should apply.  The court noted that holding the town to a negligence standard for its own team but a willful, wanton, or reckless conduct standard for the visiting team "not only would be poor sportsmanship; it would be bad law."

The court found that the town had invited the other team to play a game on the town's field to allow the town's own students to participate in interscholastic sports.  The town owed the visiting team the same duty of care to provide safe premises that it owed its own team.  The recreational use statute does not protect the town from liability for negligence that causes injuries to its own students and does not protect it from liability for injuries to visiting students.

The town also argued that the plaintiff's presentment letter was insufficient under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act because it raised only a "negligent design" theory and did not raise the "negligent maintenance" theory that was in the complaint.  A presentment letter must identify the legal basis for the claim.  It is sufficient for the plaintiff to provide sufficient facts to allow the public officials to reasonably determine the legal basis for the claim and if it presents a claim for which damages may be recovered.  The Supreme Judicial Court found that the letter provided adequate notice of the negligence claim to allow the town to investigate.  The letter did not have to provide a specific theory of negligence.

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the order for summary judgment and remanded for trial.

The court found that the presentment letter in this case was sufficient.  If you have a potential case against a town or other government entity, there are strict procedural requirements and timelines that must be met.   The Law Offices of Richard Mucci have the skill and experience to help you fulfill the requirements under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.  If you have a potential case against a government entity, call (781) 729-3999 to schedule your consultation with a Massachusetts premises liability attorney.

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