Landowner Liability in Personal Injury Lawsuit Against a Massachusetts City

bases-816202-mAlthough recreational sports should be fun, there can be risks involved depending on where the games take place. Personal injury lawsuits against governmental entities such as a city may be subject to different rules than lawsuits brought against private citizens.

A 2012 case arose when a man was hurt during a softball game organized by Coed Jewish Sports on a public field owned by the city of Newton in Massachusetts. He had joined the league after applying and paying a registration fee. Coed Jewish Sports paid $1200 to Newton’s Parks and Recreation department for a permit to use the field. The man was not involved in the permit application.

The man was sitting on the grass watching the game in 2007 when he heard a cracking sound. A tree fell and hit him in the back. His vertebrae was fractured and his shoulder blades were shattered, among other injuries.

The man sued the city and others in Superior Court. He alleged the city had a duty to maintain the field carefully and prudently and failed to do so, permitting a rotten tree to overhang the property without maintaining the tree and the property. The city denied liability and argued it was immune through the recreational use statute. It filed a motion for summary judgment. This motion was denied on the grounds that there were issues of material fact.

The city appealed the denial of the motion. It argued that it was immune from suit and that the suit should be stopped under the doctrine of present execution. The recreational use statute states that someone with an interest in land that allows the public to use the land without imposing a charge or fee is not liable for personal injuries or property damage in the absence of willful, wanton or reckless conduct. The statute applies to both governmental and private landowners.

The appellate court disagreed. It explained that the doctrine of present execution only applied if the city was immune from suit, rather than immune from liability. The city claimed both in different contexts. The appellate court explained that the statute provided an exemption from liability for ordinary negligence, but did not provide immunity from suit. A landowner could still be liable under the statute if its conduct was “willful, wanton, or reckless.”

In this case, the city had argued it should be exempt from negligence liability because the plaintiff hadn’t paid an admission fee or charge so that he could play softball on the field. A registration had been paid by the organization in connection with the sport, however.

The issue in this case was whether the landowner charged a fee for the particular use for which the plaintiff was present in the park. In this case, the plaintiff hadn’t personally paid the charge. However, the plaintiff had paid the organization, which in turn paid the fee. The appellate court found that the fact that he hadn’t paid the fee directly was not material. It mattered that the city did charge a fee for exclusive use of the field.

The city argued that what it charged the organization was not a fee, but rather a representation of the administrative and operational costs. The money the organization paid it was supposed to cover hose costs. The appellate court explained the city had not established the payment was simply a reimbursement for marginal costs. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the denial of summary judgment.

If you have are hurt while playing sports on somebody else’s property, it is important to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney. Contact Boston workers’ compensation attorney Michael O. Smith at 617-263-0060 or via our website for a consultation.