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Tour Organization Shielded Under Recreational Use Statute

pewLinda and Kenneth Patterson, members of a senior center in Georgia, took part in a sight seeing tour organized by the center that included stops along the east coast.  One of these stops included a visit to the Old North Church in Boston’s North End.  The church is said to be the location of the famous, “one if by land, and two if by sea” phrase associated with Paul Revere’s midnight ride prior to the Battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution.  As Mrs. Patterson made her way through the historic church, she was directed to sit in the church’s pew boxes.  At the entryway to each pew box was a hinged door and single step riser that was painted a very similar color to the existing carpet on the floor.  As Mrs. Patterson went to enter the pew, she did not see the riser and fell onto the bench.  As a result, she sustained serious and severe personal injuries that required hospitalization and surgery.

Mrs. Patterson brought suit alleging negligence against the Defendant foundation that was responsible for organizing tours in the church.  Among the allegations, the Plaintiff claimed that she and her husband were not warned to use caution or to watch their step when entering the pew box and that the sanctuary was poorly lit.  Additionally, the Plaintiff claimed violation of the Consumer Protection Statute, Ch. 93a, which declares unlawful unfair or deceptive acts in the conduct of any trade or commerce.  Specifically, the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant was liable under this statute because when she injured herself in the pew box, the church was not in compliance with Architectural Access Board accessibility requirements.

The Defendant, a nonprofit organization that organizes tours and historical programs at the church, argued that it was not liable under the recreational use statute in Massachusetts.  Under Massachusetts General Laws Ch. 21, s. 17C:

“Any person having an interest in land including the structures buildings, and equipment attached to the land … who lawfully permits the public to use such land for recreational … religious, or charitable purposes without imposing a charge or fee therefore … shall not be liable for personal injuries or property damage sustained by such members of the public … while on said land in the absence of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct by such person.”

The statute immunizes owners of land from liability for harm caused to persons who are permitted to use the land for recreational purposes, as long as that person was not charged a fee for usage of the land upon entry.  The Plaintiff, in the above referenced case, argued that while she toured the church free of charge, the Defendant foundation and church imposed a charge or fee because the foundation generates money and pays Christ Church an annual fee.

The Court was not moved by this argument and found that the Pattersons made no contribution, direct or indirect, to any payment the foundation made to the Church and therefore, no fee was made for purposes of circumventing the recreational use statute.  As for the consumer protection violations, the court held that the Plaintiff failed to establish a connection between the alleged misconduct and the Defendants’ business activities.

To read more on this case, please read Patterson v. Christ Church in the City of Boston, which was decided on April 3, 2014  You can access this case on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ website by clicking here and searching for unpublished decisions.  If you have suffered a personal injury, 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.

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