A recent decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) clarifies the meaning of the word “public,” insofar as it relates to tortious liability in public spaces. In Wilkins v. City of Haverhill, a pedestrian who was attending a parent-teacher conference at her child’s public school in February 2011 slipped and fell on ice that had accumulated on the sidewalk outside of the school, and sued the City of Haverhill for negligently maintaining the premises. A Massachusetts superior court granted summary judgment to the City based upon its interpretation of M.G.L. c. 21, §17C, often referred to as the Massachusetts “Public Use Statute.” Under the Public Use Statute, negligence claims against a landowner are barred if the landowner has opened its land for use by the public without charging a fee. According to the lower court, because the land on which the plaintiff slipped and fell was owned by the City and open to the public without a fee, the plaintiff’s case against the City was barred.
On appeal, the SJC reversed this decision, explaining that the statutory limitation of liability for public landowners does not apply where a premises is open only to a discrete group of people, rather than to the general public. The SJC applied a traditional definition of the word “public,” as that term is used in the statute, and understood the statute to reference the entire community and population at large, not any certain group. The legislative intent, the court concluded, was to draft a statute that would promote broad public use of land and protect landowners who opened their land to the entire population without a fee. Moreover, the SJC interpreted the Public Use Statute to apply only where the public is using the land for a purpose that the landowner intended the land to be used.
The SJC found that the City had not shown that the plaintiff was using the land in a way consistent with the City’s intended use of the land. The plaintiff was not using the land for any educational purpose, but instead to attend a conference. While the City argued that the benefit of a parent-teacher conference is felt by both the parent and the student, the court ruled that the group invited to the conference was inherently limited, as the land was not open to persons without children currently enrolled in the school. Therefore, the SJC held that the Public Use Statute did not apply under the circumstances.
Pursuant to the SJC’s decision, the summary judgment decision in favor of the City was reversed, and the plaintiff’s negligence case against the City was ordered reinstated.