No Relief – Issue of Town’s Liability Regarding Condition of High School Baseball Field for the Jury (MA)

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Murray v. Town of Hudson (Massachusetts)

A relief pitcher for a high school baseball team injured his knee while warming up in the visiting team bullpen.  He filed a lawsuit against the town that maintained the park at which the baseball field was located, alleging that the injury was caused by the town’s negligence and its wanton and reckless conduct in allowing the visiting team to use a dangerous bullpen.  The town filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the negligence claim was barred by the Massachusetts recreational use statute, and that the evidence did not support a finding of wanton or reckless conduct.  The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, and the pitcher appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Superior Court for trial.  The Court held that where a town’s school invites another city’s school to play an athletic match on a town field, the town owes the visiting student-athletes the same duty to provide a reasonably safe playing field that it owes to its own students.  The town did not dispute that if one of its own pitchers had been injured warming up in the home team bullpen, the recreational use statutes would not have shielded it from liability “because of the special relationship the town has with its own students.”  The town argued that it did not have the same “special relationship” with the visiting students.  However, the Court explained that “[t]he consequence of such a ruling would be that the town owes a duty of care to maintain a reasonably safe bullpen for the home team, but need only avoid wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct in maintaining the visiting team’s bullpen.”  The Court noted that such a conclusion would not only be “poor sportsmanship,” but it would also “be bad law.”

The town further argued that the pitcher had not satisfied the “presentment requirement” of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) because the letter he sent to the town about the claim raised only a “negligent design” theory and not a “negligent maintenance” theory.  However, the Court stated that a “presentment letter” is “adequate if it sets forth sufficient facts from which public officials reasonably can discern the legal basis of the claim, and determine whether it states a claim for which damages may be recovered under the act.”  The pitcher’s letter identified the legal basis of the claims (negligence and willful, wanton, and reckless conduct), and the Court determined that with the letter “the town reasonably could investigate those circumstances and determine whether the town might be liable on the claim under the act.”

Another argument made the by the town was that it could not be liable to the pitcher because its conduct (i.e., the design of the bullpen) fell within the “discretionary function” exception to the MTCA.  However, the Court said that issue could not be determined until trial.

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