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Showing posts with label presentment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label presentment. Show all posts

Friday, April 3, 2020

Commonwealth wins two in tort: one, bad presentment; two, no duty to juvenile assaulted in contractor custody

The Commonwealth prevailed in two tort suits under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act at the end of February.  One case, a slip-and-fall, was decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on the procedural ground of untimely presentment.  The other case, involving a physical assault on a juvenile with tragic consequences, was decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court on the merits of attenuated duty and causation in civil rights liability.

Leicester Town Hall, 2006.
Photo by Pvmoutside CC BY-SA 3.0.
In the first case, "plaintiff, Katherine Drake, slipped and fell at Leicester High School while picking up her grandson during school hours. She suffered multiple injuries, including a fractured knee and wrist."  Drake mailed her presentment (notice, or demand) letter to the Town of Leicester precisely on the two-year anniversary of the accident.  The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act requires presentment within two years, and the Commonwealth moved to dismiss on grounds of untimeliness.

The Supreme Judicial Court declined to construe the statute liberally.  "Drake does not contend that her mailed letter could have arrived on that same day, nor does she contest that the office of the proper executive officer received the presentment letter ... a full two years and three days after she was injured," the court observed.  "Given our conclusion that presentment occurs upon delivery to the office of the proper executive officer," the court affirmed dismissal.

Long Island in Boston Harbor, 2008.  Photo by Doc Searles CC BY-SA 2.0.
The second case described horrific injury inflicted on a juvenile in state custody.  A "youthful offender," Williams was in Casa Isla, "a program for juvenile males located in a facility (now closed) on Long Island in Boston Harbor. Casa Isla was operated by Volunteers of America of Massachusetts, Inc. (VOA), a nonprofit entity under contract with [the Department of Youth Services (DYS)] to operate youth residential programs." (There were other problems at Casa Isla, e.g., MassLive, WBUR.)  During a flag football game, Williams was randomly attacked by a 17-year-old resident of another VOA-operated treatment program on the island, Project Rebound, who "said he wanted to get 'kicked out.'"  After the attack, Williams experienced worsening headaches and bodily pain, but initially was given only ibuprofen.  After later emergency medical intervention, Williams was diagnosed as having "suffered ... a middle cerebral artery stroke, seizures, and cerebral edema. As a result, he now has severe and permanent brain damage. Williams currently resides in a residential program and requires twenty-four hour care."

The last bridge to Long Island was demolished in 2015.
Photo by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 (2017).
Upon suit under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, the courts rejected state liability upon various theories of DYS responsibility for the conduct of contractor VOA.  DYS and the Commonwealth had no direct involvement with the management of Casa Isla or Project Rebound, so had not even the predicate knowledge that might support liability on a civil rights theory.  Accordingly, the Appeals Court affirmed in rejecting theories of Eighth Amendment, supervisory, and vicarious liability.  Similarly, absent any affirmative act by state officials, the Commonwealth, conversely, remained within the protection of state sovereign immunity.

Associate Justice William J. Meade
Drake's case reinforces the importance of legal educators continuing to teach the 19th-century "mailbox rule," however much Generations Y and Z might not intuitively apprehend its logic.  Williams's case, however sorrowful the outcome, reinforces basic (no affirmative) duty doctrine in "constitutional tort."  As a policy matter, Williams's case also might raise questions about the wisdom of outsourcing juvenile custody without providing for public accountability.  Oh, and let's make a new rule: Anytime you're going to imprison people on a harbor island with a grisly history, that raises a red flag.

The cases are Drake v. Town of Leicester, No. SJC-12781 (Mass. Feb. 28, 2020) (Court Listener, Suffolk Law, Mass. Lawyers Weekly), and Baptiste v. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, No. 18-P-1353 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 28, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David A. Lowy wrote for a unanimous court in Drake.  Justice Meade wrote for a unanimous panel with Shin and Singh, JJ., in Baptiste.