Personal Injury Claims Against Town - September 4, 2010

On August 31, 2010, the Maine Supreme Court decided the case of Searle v Bucksport which focuses on on a personal injury claim against a town.

Special rules apply to suing the state, towns, and other state entities.  The specific statute known as the Maine Tort Claims Act controls these claims.  The statute makes towns liable for an unsafe condition in a "public building or appurtenance." The question in this case was whether a bleacher was an "appurtenance."

The facts of the case were that John Searle attended a football game at Bucksport High School.  While at the game, he fell through an opening in the visitors' bleachers caused by a missing board and was injured.  One or two days before the game, the high school's maintenance director noticed the missing board but did not replace it or flag it off as a potential hazard.

The court held that the town was immune from liability and consequently Mr. Searle was left without help from the town.  This case turned on an interpretation of a state statute.  A couple of factors drove the result.  First and foremost, the courts favor immunity over liability in cases like this so that in close calls, immunity wins.  Second, the specific bleacher had been moved a couple of times and was just sitting on a gravel pad.  Because the bleacher was portable and unattached, the court found it to be personal property rather than an attachment to real estate and, consequently, not an appurtenance.

The court also independently found that another provision of the Maine Tort Claims Act applied.  That provision specifically extended immunity to structures "designed for use primarily by the public in connection with public outdoor recreation."

This is a classic Maine Tort Claims Act case.  The result turns on an interpretation of the statute, not concepts of public safety or responsibility by public officials.  Immunity is a practical concept driven by the desire to save the state and town's money.

All claims filed under the Maine Tort Claims Act must have notice provided within six months and suit filed within two years.

Written by: Stephen B. Wade