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Angiulo: When a Member of the Public is Injured on Your Property

Monday, January 18, 2016


There's nothing quite like your own piece of real estate. It may be your home or it could be an investment, but it's always your piece of the rock. As great as that is, your possessions won't mean much if you don't have your health.  For that reason, personal injuries suffered on private property can evoke emotional responses from both sides.

Under our system of justice, injured people can be compensated if their damages were caused by someone else's negligence. As an example, if I failed to do something an ordinary person would have done, and you are hurt because of the situation I created, I would be financially responsible for your injuries.  There are, however, some situations where public policy cuts against the ordinary rules.

The case of Susan Amaral v. Seekonk Grand Prix Corp. from the Appeals Court discusses one of those exceptions. The facts of this case describe a woman who took her children to a go-cart track in Massachusetts. The facility she went to did not charge to enter the property, but did sell tickets to ride the go-carts.  The lawsuit came after one of the go-carts came off the track and went through the chain link fence the woman was standing behind.

The trial court was faced with a decision when counsel for the defendant claimed their client was immune from this lawsuit.  The word immune in this context has nothing to do with vaccinations. Instead, what it meant to defense counsel was that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of a specific law.

That law is known as the “recreational use statute” and makes certain people exempt from being sued for injuries.  That class of people includes, in part, those that let members of the public onto their land for recreational activities without charging a fee. Roughly stated, if something happens while the public is there, the land owner won't be liable unless there is evidence of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.  This law was passed to encourage people to share their land for recreational purposes by limiting legal obligations to those visitors.  

In the Amaral case, the defendant's position was that the plaintiff came onto the property for free.  Not only that but she was there to watch her kids participate in one of the many activities available on site.  The defendants saw this situation as squarely within the recreational use statute and the trial court agreed.

The judges of the Appeals Court did not see it the same way.  The difference between the defendant's version and theirs was the role the woman was playing at the time she was behind the fence.  She was more than just a spectator: she was a parent supervising children.  As a result, the Appeals Court found that the land owners in this case could have foreseen parents would be supervising children who had paid for these go-carts.  It followed that the land owners owed a duty to make sure those supervising parties were safe while observing the activity. 

With this basis, the Appeals Court decided the recreational use statute did not apply and Ms. Amaral's suit was allowed to go forward.  As always, just because a case is not dismissed does not mean the plaintiff will win.  Still to be decided at trial is whether, or not, the land owners were negligent and what monetary value could be placed on Ms. Amaral's injuries.                

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney in the city of Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and found on the web at www.angiulolaw.com


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