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The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act

If you have been injured due to the negligence or otherwise wrongful act of a public employee of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) will likely govern how, when and from whom you may recover damages, as well as how much you will be entitled to recover. This article discusses each of these procedural aspects in turn, as well as possible exceptions to the limitations imposed by the MTCA.

The MTCA provides that public employers are liable for the negligent or wrongful acts of their public employees so long as the employee committed the tortious act in the scope of their employment.

Thus, an injured plaintiff must resolve three threshold questions before going forward with her suit against a public employer:

(1) Did the person who caused the plaintiff’s injury (i.e., the tortfeasor) work for a “public employer” as defined by the MTCA?

(2) Does the tortfeasor qualify as a “public employee” as defined by the MTCA?

(3) Was that public employee acting within the scope of his employment when the injury occurred?

If and only if each of these questions are answered in the affirmative, the plaintiff may sue the public employer for whom the tortfeasor worked at the time of the injurious event. In addition, in such a case, the plaintiff may not sue the public employee-tortfeasor, unless the public employee fails to cooperate with the public employer in any given case.

Fortunately for plaintiffs, the MTCA makes the first two of these questions relatively simple to answer by expressly defining the terms “public employer” and “public employee” in the statute. While each of these definitions is too lengthy to include in its entirety herein and the statutory text should be consulted prior to taking any formal legal action, suffice it to say that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, its agencies, and the towns, cities and counties of Massachusetts are all public employers. And, the term “public employee” includes officers or employees--whether elected or appointed--of any public employer as defined above, whether serving full or part-time, temporary or permanent, compensated or uncompensated.

The third of the threshold questions above is not explicitly covered in the statute, but Massachusetts case law rulings have established that the test for determining whether a public employee has acted in the scope of his employment is the same as that applied at common law:

(1) whether the conduct in question is of the kind an employee is hired to perform,

(2) whether it occurs within authorized time and space limits, and

(3) whether it is motivated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer.

Once it has been determined that the public employer of the tortfeasor-public employee is the proper party to sue, the MTCA is the sole body of law under which the public employer may be held liable. In other words, a plaintiff injured by a public employee in the scope of his employment may not bring a common law tort claim against either the employer or employee. This rule has significant implications for plaintiffs, both in terms of how much a plaintiff can recover under such circumstances and the immunity of the tortfeasor-public employee. Subject to few exceptions, the MTCA caps the amount of compensatory damages that may be recovered to $100,000 and bars the recovery of any punitive damages. Substantively, however, the liability of a public employer subject to suit under the MTCA is determined in the same manner as if it were a private citizen being sued under common law.

Categories: Personal Injury

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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