Appeals Court Affirms Summary Judgment for Police Department in Wrongful Death Claim

Attorneys Gerard Donnelly, Patrick Ciapciak and Courtney Mayo successfully obtained summary judgment on behalf of the defendant Town in a claim for wrongful death brought by decedent’s family against responding police officers and their town employer.

The plaintiff decedent was a passenger in a vehicle whose driver was stopped for erratic driving.  The responding officer also observed that the parked car was facing the wrong direction, and detected the smell of alcohol.  The officer ultimately decided to impound the vehicle due to the driver’s behavior.  Another responding officer offered to drive both the driver and the passenger home in his police cruiser, which they both accepted.

The officer first brought the driver home, then drove the passenger (plaintiff-decedent), to her home ten minutes away upon her request.  Upon arrival, the officer parked in the driveway, opened the cruiser door for plaintiff, and asked if she needed assistance getting into her home.  She declined and walked around the corner of her house toward a back door, which was not visible from the driveway.  The officer drove away.

The next day, the plaintiff decedent was found dead outside the back of her home. The cause of death was listed as environmental hypothermia. Her blood alcohol concentration level (BAC) was reported to be 0.258, which was listed as a contributing cause of her death by a toxicologist.

The plaintiff’s family claimed that the defendant officer’s alleged negligence in failing to assist the decedent into her home in her inebriated state caused her death.

Attorneys Donnelly and Ciapciak filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, stating that that the municipal defendant is precluded from liability under the public duty rule of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G.L. c. 258, § 10, as the officers were not the original cause of the plaintiff’s death. Attorneys Donnelly and Ciapciak specifically argued that the conditions that resulted in the plaintiff’s death were those listed as the official causes of her death, and since the officers did not originally cause these conditions, they were immune for purposes of § 10(j) immunity.

The Worcester Superior Court found in favor of the town and granted summary judgment for the defendants, thereby dismissing the plaintiff’s action.

The plaintiff appealed the decision on the grounds that the community caretaker doctrine required the officer to assist the plaintiff to her door, and that the court erred in determining that the defendant’s actions were not the original cause of the plaintiff’s death.  Attorney Donnelly appeared for oral argument at the Massachusetts Appeals Court and contended that “there is no affirmative duty on the part of law enforcement to act where no other legal duty exists to do so.”  Furthermore, defendant-appellee was entitled to the immunity provided pursuant to G.L.c. 258, § 10(j) in that neither the community caretaker doctrine, nor any other law, required the officer to follow the plaintiff to her door or to take any additional steps in assuring her safety.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed, and affirmed the Worcester Superior Court’s entry of summary judgment and dismissal of the plaintiff’s action against the town.

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