The Courts continue to strictly enforce the requirement set forth in Chapter 258 that a tort claim against a public employer must be presented to its executive officer within two years after the cause of action arose.
The pertinent facts in Coren-Hall v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, ___ Mass. App. Ct. ___(February 2017), are as follows. The plaintiff alleged that on May 10, 2010, she was injured when a negligently driven MBTA bus struck a vehicle that she was in the process of entering. Her attorney sent notice of the claim and subsequent supporting materials to the “MBTA Claims Department” in May of 2010 and May of 2011. The 2011 letter included a request to “turn this notice letter over to the proper authority for handling.” However, the plaintiff did not serve the MBTA’s executive officer (General Manager) with this notice.
In May 2012, the plaintiff filed suit in Superior Court and the MBTA’s answer asserted, as an affirmative defense, that she had failed to make proper presentment of her claim as required by G. L. c. 258, § 4. Even though the MBTA had asserted the affirmative defense of failure to comply with the presentment requirements, the MBTA did not dispute that it made a settlement offer to the plaintiff in 2014, after the two-year presentment period had passed. Nonetheless, when the plaintiff rejected the settlement offer, the MBTA filed for Summary Judgment on its affirmative defense. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the MBTA had actual notice of the claim, regardless of whether it was presented to the appropriate person. The trial judge stated in part that “the MBTA was only able to extend settlement offers upon conducting an investigation of the plaintiff’s claims and receiving approval from those officials with authority to negotiate a settlement” and thus, “it was apparent that the designated executive officer of the MBTA had actual notice of the plaintiff’s claim.” The Appeals Court reversed, holding that the “actual notice” exception to the Chapter 258 presentment requirement relied on by the trial court was to be narrowly construed and only applies where it can be shown that despite defective presentment, “the designated executive officer had actual notice of the written claim”, quoting Bellanti v. Boston Pub. Health Commn., 70 Mass. App. Ct. 401, 407 (2007). The Appeals Court stated in part: “Under our precedents, notice to the executive officer will not be inferred or imputed from the fact that others with responsibility for investigation and settlement of the dispute received the plaintiff’s presentment letter and were in contact with the plaintiff.” Id, quoting Bellanti at 408.
This case must serve as a reminder to all plaintiff counsel to make sure you timely serve the appropriate executive officer of the public employer you intend to file suit against.
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