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MBTA's Liability for the Actions of Its Driver: New Case Law

Typically, new litigation is commenced when a plaintiff files a Complaint against the defendant in the appropriate court. In some circumstances, however, additional documentation must be filed or sent to the defendant prior to beginning a lawsuit.

One example deals with the issue of presentment under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act. Presentment refers to the requirement that a tort claim against a public employer must be presented to the executive officer of that employer within two years after the claim arose, by sending a presentment letter to the same. This issue was at the center of a recent case decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The case, Theisz v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, centered around an incident in March of 2015, where a passenger asked an MBTA bus driver for directions, after which the bus driver got off his bus and proceeded to beat the passenger. (Though the case does not mention this, news accounts of the incident also note that the passenger banged on the window of the bus and threw a snowball at it.) In August of the same year, the victim sent a presentment letter to the MBTA, claiming that the bus driver attacked and seriously injured him. The MBTA did not respond.

The plaintiff then filed a Complaint in the Massachusetts Superior Court, bringing claims of vicarious liability, as well as negligent hiring, training, and supervision. The MBTA denied the plaintiff’s allegations and filed for judgment on the pleadings, claiming that the plaintiff’s presentment letter was inadequate because it failed to notify the MBTA of the negligence claim included in his complaint; rather, it merely described an incident that amounted to an intentional act—an act for which the MBTA claimed to be immune from liability.

The judge allowed the defendant’s motion in part, holding that the vicarious liability claim failed. The judge held, however, that on the issue of the presentment letter, the MBTA waived its defense, as it failed to assert it with the requisite specificity and particularity. The MBTA appealed on that second issue.

Having transferred the case on its own initiative, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision. The high court agreed that the defendant failed to do much more than raise a “boilerplate” affirmative defense, which was not sufficient and adequate according to the rules. Because the affirmative defense was lacking, the adequacy of the plaintiff’s presentment was not at issue, the Court ruled. The Court also noted that questions arose as to whether the MBTA intentionally sought to “run out the clock” on the plaintiff’s claims as it failed to assert the requisite defenses, and that doing so may have prejudiced the plaintiff.

“While it might be accurate to say that the MBTA did something slightly more than merely state that the complaint failed to state a claim, by stating in the most generic way possible its position that [the plaintiff] failed to make proper presentment, that description of its defense still falls into the category of ‘boilerplate,’” the Court noted. “The MBTA's specific and particular position in its motion for judgment on the pleadings, as it is now on appeal, was that presentment was inadequate because [the plaintiff’s] letter failed to notify the MBTA of the negligence claim that [the plaintiff] eventually raised in his complaint. That is something that the MBTA easily could have, and should have, stated in its affirmative defense. Doing so would have met the requirement of the rule that a denial of performance of a condition precedent be made ‘specifically and with particularity.’”

If you have any questions about issues involving tort law, car accidents, or other injuries, you should contact a competent attorney licensed to practice law in Massachusetts. Our experienced professionals may be able to work on your behalf. Please contact our offices at your earliest convenience by phone at 978-225-9030 or complete a contact form on our website, and we will respond to you as early as possible.

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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