by Andrew Gambaccini
The Legislature enacted the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”), G.L. c. 258, §§ 1 et seq., to replace a crazy quilt of judicially created exceptions to governmental immunity and provide a “comprehensive and uniform regime of tort liability for public employers.” Lafayette Place Associates v. Boston Redevelopment Auth., 427 Mass. 509, 534 (1998). Since its initial enactment, what has developed is a further set of immunity principles, exceptions to those principles, and exceptions to the exceptions to the principles that has led to uncertainty for courts and practitioners, which continues with the decision in Reid v. City of Boston, 95 Mass. App. Ct. 591, rev. denied, 483 Mass. 1102 (2019).
The Evolution of Governmental Immunity in Massachusetts
Historically, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions enjoyed broad governmental immunity protections based upon common law principles. See Cormier v. City of Lynn, 479 Mass. 35, 37-38 (2018) (citations omitted). Over time, a convoluted landscape of judicial exceptions to governmental immunity developed, triggering a 1973 request from the SJC that the Legislature create a statutory scheme authoritatively detailing the contours of governmental immunity. See Morash & Sons, Inc. v. Commonwealth, 363 Mass. 612, 618-21 (1973). After a few years of legislative inaction, in 1977 the SJC made its intentions clear: it would abrogate governmental immunity following the 1978 legislative session if the Legislature did not take definitive action. See Whitney v. Worcester, 373 Mass. 208, 210 (1977).
The MTCA followed, allowing for limited governmental tort liability as well as setting out the procedures through which claims were to be presented and pursued. The statutory scheme provides generally that public employers are liable for the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of public employees acting within their scope of employment, while public employees are shielded from personal liability for negligent conduct. G.L. c. 258, § 2. At the same time, several statutory exceptions to the general waiver of governmental immunity were created. See G.L. c. 258, § 10.
It was not long before case nuances again created interpretive difficulties. In 1982, the SJC applied the “public duty rule” to protect governmental units from liability unless a plaintiff demonstrated that a duty breached was owed to that plaintiff, and not simply to the public at large. See Dinsky v. Framingham, 386 Mass. 801 (1982). Within a short time, the SJC endorsed a “special relationship” exception to the public duty rule, permitting governmental liability where a governmental actor reasonably could foresee both an expectation to act to protect a plaintiff and the injury caused by failing to do so. See Irwin v. Ware, 392 Mass. 745 (1984). When subsequent judicial gloss through the “public duty-special relationship dichotomy” failed to produce “a rule of predictable application[,]” the SJC announced its intention to abolish the public duty rule altogether. Jean W. v. Commonwealth, 414 Mass. 496, 499 (1993) (Liacos, C.J. concurring); see also 414 Mass. at 514-15 (Wilkins, Abrams, J. concurring) and 523-25 (Greaney, J. concurring). The Legislature responded by amending the MTCA, most notably by adding six new § 10 exceptions, (e) through (j), to the general waiver of governmental immunity,modification that has done little to diminish the vexing complexities of governmental liability and immunity.
Reid v. City of Boston
Reid features the latest judicial foray into two of the knottiest statutory exceptions concerning governmental immunity, §§ 10 (h) and 10 (j). Plaintiff Reid received a call from her sister, during which the sister was heard asking someone to stop following her and why that person’s hands were behind his back. Knowing her sister had a troubled relationship with her boyfriend, Reid drove to her sister’s home, where she saw her sister’s boyfriend, Cummings. Reid engaged him in a conversation that was neither heated nor worrisome for Reid. As they spoke, Reid’s sister called 911 and reported that Cummings had threatened to kill her.
Three Boston police officers responded and came upon Reid and Cummings. The officers perceived the two to be speaking calmly, noted no injuries and saw no indication of either being armed, something both Reid and Cummings denied. As the inquiry continued, one officer approached Cummings from behind, suddenly grabbed him and reached for his waist, intending to frisk Cummings for weapons. Cummings pushed the officer away, drew a firearm from his waistband and opened fire. The officers returned fire. Cummings was killed, one officer was shot in the leg and Reid also was shot in the leg by Cummings.
Reid sued the officers and the City. The Superior Court dismissed the claims against the officers, but the negligence claim against City proceeded to trial. Reid claimed that the attempt to frisk Cummings created a harm that otherwise did not exist, escalating a controlled encounter into a shootout, and that such negligence caused her injury. By special verdict form, the jury found the City liable, concluding the police pre-shooting negligence was a substantial contributing factor in causing Reid’s injury. The City filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that it was immune pursuant both to G.L. c. 258, § 10 (h), which, among other things, immunizes municipalities from claims based upon failure to provide police protection, and § 10 (j), which, in part, forecloses claims against a governmental agency based upon a failure to prevent violence by a third party not originally caused by a government actor. The Superior Court denied the motion and the City appealed.
The Appeals Court affirmed the denial of the motion, turning away both of the City’s § 10 arguments. As to immunity for failure to provide police protection under § 10 (h), the tip of the City’s spear was Ariel v. Kingston, 69 Mass. App. Ct. 290 (2007). Ariel involved a plaintiff who was a passenger in a motor vehicle approaching an intersection where police officers were directing traffic in the vicinity of an accident. Proceeding with a green light, the driver of the plaintiff’s vehicle entered the intersection while contemporaneously an officer waved, against a red light, another vehicle into the intersection, leading to a collision. The Ariel Court determined that the town was immune pursuant to § 10 (h) because controlling traffic was a form of police protection to the public.
Analyzing the § 10 (h) exception in Reid, the Appeals Court stated that, while § 10 (h) “shields municipalities from claims where police officers negligently failed to prevent harm posed by third parties[,]” Reid’s “successful theory of liability was not that the police officers failed to protect her from a threat, but rather that the officer’s affirmative conduct created a danger that did not previously exist.” Reid distinguished Ariel by noting the officers directing traffic were providing police assistance to mitigate a dangerous condition while, in Reid, the officers encountered a calm situation and it only was police action that created the danger.
Concerning immunity for the failure to prevent violence by third parties not originally caused by government actors under § 10 (j), Reid avoided the intensely problematic determination of whether the officers’ actions “originally caused” Reid’s injury, instead drawing on a statutory exception to this immunity. Specifically, the Appeals Court found that subsection § 10 (j) (2)’s exception to immunity applied because the officer’s intervention had “place[d] the victim in a worse position than [s]he was in before the intervention[.]” In broad stroke, Reid concluded that the City could be liable because its officer had engaged in an “affirmative act” that contributed materially to create the danger from which the plaintiff sustained injury.
It long has been difficult to chart a predictable course through the statutory and judicial landscape of governmental immunity. Reid’s interpretation of § 10 (h) adds another layer of complexity to this area of law. While Ariel involved an officer engaging in the affirmative act of waving a car into a police-controlled intersection, there was no municipal liability in that case because the circumstance was “dangerous” however municipal liability existed in Reid because a police response to a 911 call featuring an allegation of domestic assault somehow took place in “calm” conditions. Further, because Reid passed on its opportunity to clarify §10 (j), including, for example, a discussion of factors relevant to determining whether the officers’ actions were the original cause of injury, §10 (j) remains a morass of cascading exceptions to the MTCA’s general waiver of immunity.
Cummings was armed and prepared to shoot. If he had fired before any attempt at a frisk, there seems little doubt that the City could not have been found liable. That Cummings made his choice to shoot after an officer tried to frisk him for purposes of weapon detection and disarmament rendered the City liable for Cummings’ shooting of Reid. In the last analysis, Reid’s interpretation of §§ 10 (h) and 10 (j) leaves the principles of governmental immunity as it found them – a complex, nuanced and often confusing “process of defining the limits of governmental immunity through case by case adjudication.” Whitney, 373 Mass. at 209-10.
Andrew Gambaccini is an associate at Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, P.C., where he focuses his practice in civil rights and the defense of law enforcement officers.