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Highest Court in Mass Defines “Public” To Resolve Slip and Fall

field-trip-205687-mMichelle Wilkins was approaching a public school in Haverhill in February of 2011 to attend her child’s parent-teacher conference. As she was making her way to the school she slipped and severely injured herself on ice that had accumulated on a walkway of the school. After treating for her injuries and seeking medical intervention, she brought suit against the city of Haverhill alleging negligence in the city’s failure to properly maintain the walkways to be free of ice and accumulating snow.  She argued that this accumulation constituted a defect in the property. Additionally, as a result of the alleged negligence by the city of Haverhill for allowing such a defect to exist on its property, she was caused to sustain numerous injuries. The city of Haverhill responded to the allegations by seeking to dismiss the case. In a somewhat surprising defense, the city of Haverhill cited M.G.L. c. 21, § 17C, the Recreational Use Statute.

As previously mentioned on this site, under the Recreational Use Statute in Massachusetts, a city or private party who permits the public to use his or her land for recreational purposes without fee, will be relieved of liability for injuries allegedly sustained as a result of defects in the property. The trial court judge allowed the City’s motion to dismiss the case, and the injured Plaintiff appealed. On appeal, the city argued that the Plaintiff’s claim should be barred under the statute because she is a member of the public and her attendance at the parent-teacher meeting qualified as an educational purpose within the meaning of the statute.

The Plaintiff argued, which the Supreme Judicial Court agreed, that the school was not open to the general public at the time of her fall. The court reasoned, “without establishing a general rule, a number of prior appellate decisions have indicated that to be entitled to the public use statute’s immunity from claims of ordinary negligence, a landowner must permit all members of the general public to have free and equal access to the land for one or more of the enumerated activities.”

The court, finding for the Plaintiff, detailed that the city of Haverhill failed to show that the Plaintiff entered on the premises of the school to participate in an educational activity open to the general public as the school was closed to individuals without enrolled students. The city also argued that the the Plaintiff’s “attendance afforded her an opportunity to participate in her child’s educational experience, and that “[s]uch participation benefits not only the parent but the child as well.” In response the court held that the fact that the school serves a general educational purpose did not warrant granting the city the protection of the recreational use statute.

To read more on this case, please read Wilkins v. City of Haverhill, which was decided on May 09, 2014 by the Supreme Judicial Court.  You can access this case on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ website by clicking here and searching by party name.  If you have suffered a personal injury, such as a slip and fall, our office can help you. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.