Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Notice Requirement in Personal Injury Cases

Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Notice Requirement in Personal Injury Cases

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an important ruling in a personal injury matter involving a bicyclist who was injured on a public roadway in Boston.  This decision impacts when notice is required to be given to an entity responsible for the maintenance of public roads and streets, and amplifies my February 2018 blog concerning time limitations for bringing various actions.  In that blog I discussed G.L. c. 84, § 15, known as the “road defect statute,” which states that notice of claims for injuries suffered due to a defective street or highway condition must be provided within 30 days of the injury.

In this most recent SJC case, Meyer v. Veolia Energy, SJC 12606 (Mass. 2019), a bicyclist was riding on Sudbury Street, a public way in Boston.  Meyer struck a manhole cover which was loose and not aligned properly.  He was caused to crash to the pavement as a result and was seriously injured.  The incident occurred on July 1, 2013.  Eighteen days after the injury, Meyer’s attorney sent the required notice to the City of Boston, asserting that the roadway was negligently maintained and thereby a hazardous condition existed.  On July 31, 2013, the City wrote counsel a letter stating that the City of Boston was not responsible for the area in question and informed counsel that the manhole cover and area surrounding it were under the jurisdiction of Veolia Energy, which had the duty to maintain the area and the manhole cover.

On August 6, 2013, Meyer’s counsel wrote a letter to Veolia, informing them that his client had been injured due to the improperly maintained manhole cover.  This notice to Veolia was sent more than 30 days after the accident.

On February 17, 2015, Meyer’s attorney filed a complaint against Veolia alleging negligence in the maintenance of the roadway and the manhole cover in particular.  Veolia admitted that it was responsible for the manhole cover and the area in question.  Veolia nonetheless moved to dismiss the claim via a motion for summary judgment, claiming Meyer’s sole remedy for his injury was G. L. c. 84, § 15, and that the required 30 day notice contained in § 18 of the statute was not given.  Veolia claimed Meyer’s only recourse for his injuries was statutory, therefore he had no claim at common law for negligence.  Common law claims for personal injuries sounding in negligence are governed by a three year statute of limitations.

In response to the motion, Meyer’s counsel argued that a private corporation was not covered by  §§ 15 and 18, and that the statute and 30 day notice requirement only applied to municipalities and government actors.

The trial court allowed Veolia’s motion and dismissed Meyer’s claim.  The judge reasoned that § 15 “is the exclusive remedy for personal injuries caused by a defect in a public way” and that § 18 “mandates notice to both private and government entities of any defect that the party is obliged to repair.”  Since Meyer’s counsel had provided notice outside the 30 day period, the case was barred from proceeding.

Meyer appealed the decision of the trial judge and the SJC transferred the case directly from the lower court on its own motion.

The SJC reversed the decision of the lower court and Meyer’s case was allowed to proceed.  The SJC ruled that the road defect statute, G.L. c. 84 § 15, applies only to government entities and therefore Meyer’s failure to give notice to Veolia within thirty days of his injury per § 18 of the statute did not affect his ability to proceed against Veolia in a common-law negligence action:

“We conclude that the road defect statute, like the notice statute, is meant to apply to the public duty to maintain the roadway and does not apply to a private entity responsible for a  particular defect in the road.  The Legislature did not intend to separate responsibility for the roadway from responsibility for the defect and provide liability to one and notice to the other.  The statutes are directed at governmental liability for roadways and the defects thereon.”

Therefore, the 30 day notice requirement only applies to cities, towns, and the Commonwealth – government actors.  If it is shown that a private entity is responsible for the defective and dangerous condition, a common law negligence claim for personal injuries may be brought against that private entity within three years of the date of injury.