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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Says Bicycle Accident Case Against Utility Company Should Not Have Been Dismissed on Summary Judgment

All Massachusetts personal injury and wrongful death cases are subject to strict filing deadlines called “statutes of limitation.” Cases not filed within the time set forth by these statutes are almost always dismissed on procedural grounds.

It is important to note that, in some cases, there may be other deadlines – sometimes, much shorter deadlines – in addition to the general statute of limitations. Again, failure to act within the required time period can be fatal to a plaintiff’s case.

One example of this is a claim against a city or municipality. In these cases, at least some type of minimal legal action (such as the giving of notice) must be taken within a matter of days, or else the plaintiff will be barred from monetary recovery against the responsible governmental entity.

Facts of the Case

A recent appellate case arose as a result of a bicycle accident that occurred on July 1, 2013. According to the plaintiff bicyclist, the accident was caused by a utility cover that was misaligned with the road surface. Eighteen days after the accident, the plaintiff’s attorney sent, by certified mail, a notice of claim to several city officials informing them of the accident, which the plaintiff contended was caused by the city’s negligent maintenance of the roadway. Thirty-one days after the accident, the plaintiff’s attorney received a letter informing him that the city was not responsible for the plaintiff’s damages because the location of the defect was under the jurisdiction of the defendant energy company.  Five days later, the plaintiff’s attorney sent a notice of claim to the defendant.

The plaintiff filed a formal complaint against the defendant on February 17, 2015, asserting that the defendant’s negligent installation and/or maintenance of the utility cover or casting had caused his injuries. The defendant admitted that it owned the utility hole and was responsible for its maintenance, but it sought summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff’s exclusive remedy was through the “road defect statute” codified at Massachusetts General Laws ch. 84, § 15. Because the plaintiff had not given the defendant notice of the accident within 30 days, the defendant argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The trial court agreed that the giving of notice within 30 days pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws ch. 84, § 18 was a condition precedent to any recovery. Because the plaintiff had not notified the defendant until one week after the 30-day deadline, the trial court judge held that the plaintiff was barred from proceeding under § 15 and allowed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case from the intermediate appeals court on its own initiative.

The Court’s Ruling

The supreme judicial court reversed the lower court’s decision, holding that the plaintiff’s failure to give notice to the defendant within 30 days of his injury did not affect his ability to proceed in a common-law negligence action. Although the court noted that the road defect statute provided the exclusive remedy against a governmental or quasi-governmental entity responsible for
maintaining a roadway, that statute and the accompanying notice statute were not meant to displace the common-law remedy against a private party, such as the defendant, who was responsible for a defect like the one that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In so holding, the court referred to previous case law that held that a municipality cannot delegate its public responsibilities under the road defect statute and that an injured person may also have a claim against a private party due to an injury on a public roadway.

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The negligence of an individual, business, or governmental entity can cause serious personal injuries and even wrongful death to an innocent person. If you or someone in your family has been hurt by another’s careless conduct, you should talk to an attorney as soon as possible. Failure to take timely legal action can have dire consequences, so it is important to act promptly. To schedule an appointment with an experienced Cape Cod bicycle accident attorney, please call The Law Offices of John C. Manoog III, at 888-262-6664. There is no charge for the consultation, and many cases are accepted on a contingency fee contract.