Showing posts with label MBTA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MBTA. Show all posts

Monday, October 18, 2021

Accidental deaths on nonpublic stairways threaten public transit with tort liability in London, Boston

Canning Town Station in 2020
(photo by Ewan Munro CC BY-SA 2.0)
An English court last week exonerated the London Underground of liability in the death of a trespasser who fell down fire-escape stairs; meanwhile, in New England, investigation continues into the death of a Boston professor who fell from disused stairs in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system.

The facts of the cases differ, but both point to the obligation of aging transit systems to secure their physical infrastructure, even against risks to trespassers.

Bernard Ovu, a 35-year-old IT specialist for the UK Bar Council, fell, hit his head, and died in 2017.  On a meandering journey on a bitter-cold night, Ovu was returning home from a wedding; a post mortem test reported his blood-alcohol level at 0.176%.  At about 2 a.m. at the Canning Town Station, Ovu went through an emergency exit door, where an emergency stair led to a second door to the street.  Surveillance showed that Ovu reached the street-level exit door, but, for unknown reasons, did not push it open.

An image in the Ovu opinion depicts Canning Town Station.
The triangle marks the platform exit; the square marks street
access. Ovu fell at the circle.

Meanwhile, responding to a silent alarm, an Underground worker had secured the platform-level door.  Evidence showed that Underground policy required workers to sweep the area before re-securing the door, but no sweep was done.  Underground officials knew the emergency way was accessed occasionally, especially in late-night hours, by persons seeking to urinate or vomit.  Ovu could not reenter the platform and apparently believed himself trapped.  Seeking another exit, he fell on the stairs at 2:49 a.m. and died, possibly as a result of the combination of his injuries, intoxication, and the below-freezing temperature.

A professor in the Boston University School of Public Health, David K. Jones also was in a place where he should not have been.  The 40-year-old was out for a Saturday morning run in September when he took a staircase down from an overpass near the JFK Station.  The staircase was rusted and missing six steps: a gap through which Jones fell 20 feet to his death.  The staircase had been closed for 20 months and was fenced off at top and bottom; it is unknown how or why Jones entered it.  The MBTA removed the stairway days after the accident.

With investigation continuing in the Jones accident, the MBTA system has since suffered a bloody escalator accident and a pedestrian near-miss with debris falling from a stairway.  Commentators have thus linked the state of the transit system with the national debate over infrastructure financing.

The court in the Ovu matter ruled that Ovu was a trespasser in the emergency way and that the Underground had conducted itself reasonably relative to that status.  Despite the Underground's derogation of policy, Ovu had arrived in his predicament through his own misfeasance, and he was not in fact trapped.  It remains unclear whether Jones knowingly passed through secure fencing; if he did, then he was a trespasser on the rusty stairway from which he fell.  If that was the case, then Massachusetts law would not preclude liability, but would afford less latitude to a plaintiff than UK law.

Historically, common law was unforgiving of trespass.  The web of rules that evolved for the problem of landowner liability for dangerous conditions varied the liability rule depending on the status of the injured person.  At its simplest, distinctions were drawn in the three categories of public invitees, social guests ("licensees"), and trespassers.  The latter were owed little in the way of landowner duty, at most to refrain from the intentional or reckless infliction of harm.

Common law complexity has gradually given way to a unitary "reasonableness" standard, under which the status of the plaintiff is referred to the jury as a circumstance for its consideration.  When the Washington Supreme Court chose to retain the common law framework in 1986, it observed that only nine states had moved to the unitary standard—as well as England, by statute.  Today, half of states have adopted the unitary standard, and it is favored by the Third Restatement of Torts.

But among unitary-standard states, trespassers are not necessarily incorporated, reflecting a continuing vitality in their common law disfavor.  States, including Massachusetts, exclude trespassers from the unitary standard by a ratio better than two to one.  After some wrangling in the case law, the UK by statute incorporated trespassers into the unitary standard.

Thus, Ovu, even as a trespasser, was owed a duty of reasonable care.  A Massachusetts trespasser can prevail only upon proof of reckless or intentional wrongdoing.  If the estate and family of Jones seek liability from the MBTA, they will be far better off if the investigation uncovers a defect in how the stairway was secured.  If Jones made an innocent mistake of fact, then plaintiffs might hope to challenge his status as a trespasser and move him to within the unitary reasonableness standard.  That uncertainty might explain why there has not yet been report of a lawsuit in the Jones matter, while the Sept. 26 escalator accident yielded a suit by the first of October.

It happens that the Massachusetts Appeals Court heard a case about just such a mistake of fact in 2016.  In Bernier v. Smitty's Sports Pub, Inc., a pub patron in his 70s, Ronald Leger, was killed when he fell down a dark basement stairwell with uneven steps.  Leger mistook a door marked "Employees Only" for the entrance to the men's room.  He had been drinking, but had been to the pub and used the restroom before.  The door usually was locked, and there was no evidence that a patron had made the same mistake before.

The trial court in Bernier ruled Leger not a trespasser.  The adequacy of the marking on the unlocked door, at the pertinent time at which Leger stood before it, was incorporated into the question of negligence for the jury's consideration.  The jury awarded the plaintiffs 80% recovery after reduction for Leger's own negligence in making the mistake.

On appeal, the court affirmed.  The status of a visitor on land, trespasser or otherwise, was properly a question of law for the trial court, the Appeals Court opined.  The jury verdict was sufficiently supported by the evidence.  One could imagine a similar analysis in the Jones matter.

The English case is Ovu v. London Underground (Q.B. Oct. 13, 2021).  Master Victoria McCloud authored the opinion.  HT @ Gordon Exall, Civil Litigation Brief, via Private Law TheoryWells, Anderson, & Race, LLC, Denver, Colo., prepared a 50-state survey of landowner liability regimes in the United States in 2015 for the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Best friend of teen struck, killed by train may claim negligence without physical injury, appeals court rules

On a "zone of danger" theory, the Massachusetts Appeals Court last week reinstated the claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress by the teenage best friend of a girl struck and killed by an MBTA commuter train in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Fence gap in NECN coverage, Oct. 31, 2014.  More from WCVB below.
Be warned, video surveillance captured girls' screams. 
Thirteen-year-old best friends Kiandra Calderon and Jenaira Fuentes were crossing rail tracks in between their homes and shops, where they bought Halloween costumes.  The court recounted, "For most, if not all, of the ten years during which the defendant [Royal Park, LLC] has owned the property, there have been large holes and gaps in the fence through which adults and children pass on a daily basis in order to reach nearby shopping plazas and the Lawrence High School." On Halloween 2014,Jenaira was struck and killed by an MBTA train.  "Kiandra, who was not struck by the train, tried to perform life saving measures on her friend and then remained close by as rescue personnel unsuccessfully tried to save Jenaira's life."



Kiandra sued on two counts, first, for negligence under the Massachusetts child trespasser statute, and second, for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).  The court recognized that the two claims were essentially the same, because the trespasser statute provided the standard of care for the NIED, and the NIED provided the alleged injury required by the trespasser statute.  According to the pleadings, Kiandra's suffering was so severe that it manifested physically, as NIED claims typically require at minimum, requiring medical treatment for "anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, night terrors, nightmares, diminished appetite and food intake, bouts of extreme anger, behavioral problems at home and school, poor educational performance, and self-harm."

Even so, NIED claims are typically disallowed in the United States.  Negligence, or foreseeable accident, is regarded as too thin a reed on which to hold a defendant responsible for the merely emotional suffering of another, in the absence of physical injury.  Imagine if every romantic breakup resulted in an NIED lawsuit.  Whatever tort reformers or foreign observers might think, the United States isn't that lawsuit crazy.

There are exceptions, though, to the no-NIED rule.  Massachusetts is among the states that have kept the door open for the occasional compelling theory of NIED, not rejecting the notion outright.  And there are exceptions that are widely accepted.  Courts throughout the states are willing to award NIED recoveries to plaintiffs who were in the "zone of danger" themselves, even if narrowly escaping physical injury, reasoning that the physical threat was sufficient to make emotional distress claims credible and verifiable.  A smaller number of states are willing to award NIED recoveries to a narrow class of bystanders, those who contemporaneously witness physical injury inflicted on a close family member.

Kiandra's counsel tried to bring her within the bystander category by pleading the closeness of the teens' best friendship; the trial court was not moved.  However, the Appeals Court held, the trial court failed to consider Kiandra's own position in the zone of danger.  The girls were walking the tracks together, and just one was struck and killed.  Pending further development of the facts, it looks like Kiandra was in much the same jeopardy as her friend (see the WCVB video above, but be warned, the audio tough to hear).  The court sharply distinguished bystander NIED recovery from zone-of-danger recovery.  In the latter case, the plaintiff is a direct victim of the defendant's negligence, not an indirect sufferer as witness, and need not prove a close family relationship.  The court reversed and remanded for Kiandra to pursue her day in court.

The case is Calderon v. Royal Park, LLC, No. 18-P-1014 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 10, 2019).  Vuono, Wolohojian, and McDonough, JJ., were on the panel.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lawyers, read carefully: 'Presentment' held defective under state tort claims act



A cautionary tale from the Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday, per Justice Peter Sacks, reminds lawyers to read statutes carefully.


Plaintiff was among five persons (perhaps family, based on the names of four) injured in a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) bus accident.  Her lawyer filed a claim with the "MBTA Claims Department," the transmittal asking that the claim be referred to the appropriate authority.  The MBTA made settlement offers to the five, and only Plaintiff turned down the offer and opted to pursue litigation instead.

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act requires presentment of a claim to the "executive officer" of the defendant state entity.  The trial court let the difference slide under a statutory exception allowing for correction of defective presentment upon the executive officer's actual knowledge of the claim.

The appeals court reversed, ruling that the exception must be construed narrowly.  Neither the attorney's request to forward nor logical inference was sufficient.  The court awarded the MBTA summary judgment.

The court acknowledged that the ruling is "a harsh result," especially considering that it probably mattered not at all to the MBTA claims process whether its executive received notice.

The case is Coren-Hall v. MBTA, No. 16-P-300 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 23, 2017), here at Mass.gov, here at Mass. Lawyers Weekly, and here at Justia.

[UPDATE, Dec. 17, 2018: In a December 2018 negligence case against the MBTA under the state tort claims act, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed "that the MBTA had waived the affirmative defense of inadequate presentment by failing to plead it with the required specificity and particularity." The case is Theisz v. MBTA, No. SJC-12559 (Mass. Dec. 12, 2018).]

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Please Stand Behind the White Line: Harassment and free speech on the byway



A decision yesterday from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, V.J. v. N.J., 2017 Mass. App. LEXIS 6 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 30, 2017) (Mass.gov (temporary); Lexis with registration) pitted civil harassment against free speech in the case of a transit-service bus driver who felt threatened by a passenger’s unwanted advances and irate reaction to being rebuffed.  The court, per Justice William Meade, affirmed extension of a civil protection order.  Justice James Milkey dissented.  Meade is a former ADA and AAG.  Milkey is a former environmental lawyer who litigated on behalf of the Commonwealth to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases.

The facts engender sympathy for the position of the plaintiff, a bus driver for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).  The defendant passenger came on to her a number of times, and she rebuffed his advances.  She ultimately complained to her supervisor upon an incident when the defendant “approached her from behind and grabbed her across her chest in a ‘bear hug,’” while the plaintiff was in full MBTA uniform.  When plaintiff thereafter spurned a tendered apology and eschewed further communication, defendant became verbally abusive, hurling derogatory epithets, “‘fat bitch’” and “‘ghetto bitch.’”  He was removed by police. 

Plaintiff thereafter for a time denied defendant access to the bus.  In a subsequent encounter, defendant did board the bus and was again removed by police after he “went on a rant about the impropriety of his being denied access,” told plaintiff “he would be there every day to inconvenience her,” and refused to leave the bus unless plaintiff called police.

Civil harassment has a curious history in U.S. law and an unsettled relationship with the freedom of speech.  Statutes of various kinds are commonplace in the states.  They accord with popular wisdom about what’s acceptable and what’s not in ordinary social interaction.  

Considering that the United States is a common law jurisdiction, though, harassment stands out as an example of the common law’s sometimes failure to change with the times.  Statutory harassment as an intentional tort might incorporate separate instances of common law assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), or invasion of privacy, but does not have to.  In some models, harassment can occur without the imminence of contact that assault requires and without the physical contact that battery requires.  Harassment might be accomplished through invasion of privacy—disclosure, intrusion, even misappropriation—but might not be. 

Instead, harassment statutes usually articulate a unique theory of intentional tort, invariably characterized by repetition.  The common law’s notorious insensitivity to gender inequality, both historic and extant, probably has a lot to do with its failure to evolve a response to harassment as a social problem, considering that women are disproportionately victimized.

Especially when harassment is not also assault or battery, it usually is accomplished by expression, written or verbal, so the freedom of speech is implicated.  The facial constitutionality of criminal and civil prohibitions on harassment is usually taken for granted.  But why that should be so is not so plain.

Harassment didn’t make the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic list of “non-speech” or unprotected speech categories in First Amendment law, alongside the likes of obscenity, “fighting words,” threats, and incitements to violence.  A free speech absolutist might well argue that harassment prohibitions, however fashionable, are, or should be, unconstitutional.  The opposite position is to be permissive of new-category recognition and carve out a harassment exception, invoking the muse of “I know it when I see it.”  

A typical and nuanced approach tries to jam harassment into existing non-speech categories, especially fighting words or “true threat” doctrine.  The fighting-words fit requires a touch of re-engineering, as the category usually requires the same imminence that assault does.  True threat has some more flexibility to it, owing to its relatively modest accretion of definitive case law to date.  But the notion of “threat” still seems to say something about urgency that the no-less-offensive, persistent grating of harassment might not quite equal.

By statute, a Massachusetts civil protection order requires harassment to be expressed in three instances.  Indeed, repetition is usually the linchpin that eases a court’s conscience in letting harassment slide under the First Amendment radar.  Massachusetts courts look for three malicious acts, “‘characterized by cruelty, hostility or revenge,’” and producing in sum, “‘fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.’”  This approach is thought to thread the “true threat” needle to the First Amendment’s satisfaction.

Manifesting the court’s sensitivity to the wakefulness of the free speech watchdog, repetition became precisely the sticking point between majority and dissent in V.J. v. N.J.  Justice Milkey disputed the viability of the third encounter between plaintiff and defendant as sufficient to support the three encounters required to extend the protection order.  Recall that the defendant said he would not leave the bus unless plaintiff summoned police.  Acknowledging a close question, the majority reasoned its way from intransigence to physical threat:


Although he did not directly threaten the plaintiff with physical violence, he nonetheless threatened that he would continue confronting her in this same manner, i.e., ranting about being denied access, and that she would need continuous police intervention to remove him from the bus. It was his stated goal that on a daily basis he would inconvenience her as she had him. This suffices to demonstrate the defendant’s malicious intent, characterized by cruelty, hostility, or revenge, to intimidate the plaintiff and to place her in fear of physical harm.


Justice Milkey disagreed.  A police summons might have threatened a physical encounter with police, he reasoned, but not with plaintiff.  The pledge to return daily was a threat of annoyance, not violence.  Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court in Virginia v. Black (2003), Milkey defined a “true threat” as “a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual.”  Milkey found no physicality in the defendant’s expression vis-à-vis the plaintiff.  Moreover, Milkey indulged the defendant’s theory that his expression constituted protest of his exclusion from the bus by a public official, in essence, a form of political expression, not “motivated by ‘cruelty, hostility, or revenge.’”

At first blush, the dissent seems hyper-technical and cringeworthily insensitive to what this bus driver had to endure—doubtless amid the myriad daily struggles of the job.  But one must appreciate that Milkey was motivated by a defense of free speech.  He did not condone the defendant’s conduct, and he expressly disavowed opinion on the propriety of the defendant’s exclusion from the bus.  Myself, I am inclined to succumb to the overwhelming social appeal of the plaintiff’s position in this case.  But I think it fair to say that dissenting required a measure of intellectual courage.