Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules That School System Is Not Immune from Being Sued after First Grader Suffered Injuries during Recess

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that a public school system can be sued by a student who suffered permanent injuries when he was pushed to the ground by a fellow student during recess.  The event took place in 2004 at the Wood End Elementary School in Reading.

Some Legal Background

There is a law in Massachusetts called the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA).  Basically, the MTCA defines the liability and limits of liability for government entities and their employees.  The following is a list of some of the more interesting features of this law.  There is a lot more to the law than this, so please note that this is not a complete and thorough explanation – it is simply a summary of some of the interesting points:

  • Protects state and city government workers from liability when the claim is based on the employee’s negligent or wrongful act when done while acting within the scope of his duties (G.L. 258, Sect. 2).
  • Allows for public employers to be sued just like private employers for an employee’s negligent or wrongful act, BUT limits liability for governmental entities to $100,000.  Interestingly, the MBTA is not subject to this $100,000 limit (Id.).
  • Requires that a written claim be presented to the governmental entity prior to initiating a lawsuit (G.L. 258, Sect. 3).

The government has legal immunity in certain circumstances:

  • When a claim is based upon an employee’s act or omission, if the employee was exercising due care in the execution of his duties (G.L. 258, Sect. 10(a)).
  • When a claim is based upon the exercise or failure to exercise a discretionary function of the public employee’s job (G.L. 258, Sect. 10(b)).
  • When a claim is based upon harm originally caused by a third person’s violent or tortious conduct, rather than the public employee’s act or omission (G.L. 258, Sect. 10(j)).  As with many facets of the law (to the chagrin of so many law students sitting for the bar exam), there are exceptions to this exception, but that goes beyond the scope of this blog.

I underlined sections 10(b) and 10(j) because those were the items which were in dispute in this Reading case.

Some Case Background

As described by the Appeals Court decision, here is some factual background:  “On November 1, 2004, plaintiff Nicola Gennari  (Nico or plaintiff), then a first-grade student attending Wood End Elementary School (Wood End) in Reading, was seriously and permanently injured during a school-mandated recess period. At the time of Nico’s injury, Wood End lacked a playground. Principal Karen Callan, who had served as an elementary school principal for eleven years, directed that the first graders’ recess be conducted in a concrete courtyard, although there were alternative locations where that recess might have been held, including the school gymnasium which was equipped with padded walls. The courtyard was not simply an empty area with a concrete surface. It was populated by several ‘bench-walls,’ essentially low, concrete-topped brick walls, each several feet long, that could be used as benches, and that had sharp edges and corners. The plaintiff filed this action against the defendant Reading Public Schools, alleging that Principal Callan’s choice of recess location was negligent, and was the proximate cause of Nico’s injury… At his deposition, Nico testified that his injury occurred while he was racing with other children around the courtyard. He ‘felt a push’ from behind, which caused him to fall, and his face struck the corner of a concrete bench-wall, resulting in a severe laceration. The push came from his fellow first grader and friend, six year old Samuel Turrecamo (Sam).”  Genarri v. Reading Public Schools, 09-P-644 (Mass. App. 2010).

Reading then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, meaning that they wanted the lower district court to make a decision based on the facts presented, without even having a trial.  This is a very common motion in litigation.  The district court rejected the Motion for Summary Judgment, and Reading then appealed that decision to the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

The Court’s Analysis

Reading tried to argue that the principal’s decision was a discretionary one, and thus Reading should be immunized under section 10(b).  The Appeals Court did not agree.  In his decision, Appeals Court Judge Peter J. Rubin wrote “decisions that require some discretion but do not involve social, political, or economic policy considerations are not immunized by section 10(b)” (emphasis added).   This short phrase appears to set new precedent, since it more strictly refines what is meant by “a discretionary function.”

Reading also tried to argue that it should be immune under section 10(j) because the town believed that the student’s push, rather than the principal’s decision to hold recess in the courtyard, was the “original cause” of the harm.  Again, the appeals court disagreed.  In its decision, the Court wrote, “Running, falling, and pushing are understood, foreseeable, even inherent parts of first-grade recess.  Thus, even though [the classmate’s] conduct in pushing or falling into [the plaintiff] can be said to be the more immediate cause of the injury, [the principal’s] decision to hold recess in the concrete courtyard, which contained whatever danger the protruding edge-walls represented, materially contributed to the ‘condition or situation’ which caused the harm.”  What this means is that the principal should have taken into account the expectation that first graders are going to run, fall, and bang into each other.  Being an expert on children, the principal should have realized that she was placing children into harm’s way by allowing them to have recess in an all-concrete environment.

The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal disputes.  Please visit http://www.lawbaron.com for more information.

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