Making an Injury Claim Under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act

Suppose you're injured by another person's negligence in Massachusetts. You're hit by a car while crossing the street, or you trip and fall on a broken staircase. In those situations, you might seek compensation from the driver or the building's owner by way of a personal injury claim. But what if the driver is a government employee, or the building is a state office building? In Massachusetts, you might try seeking compensation by filing a claim against the state government, but you'll need to follow a strict procedure that we'll cover here.

Massachusetts Laws on Suing the Government for Negligence

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act governs claims brought against the government for the negligence of its "public employees." Section 2 of the MTCA states that "public employees shall be liable for injury or loss of property or personal death" caused by negligence, wrongful acts, or omissions. However, the Act also limits government liability in certain ways, including a $100,000 cap on damages per plaintiff in most cases (more on this below).

By allowing the state government to face liability for negligent acts, the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act limits the traditional rule of "sovereign immunity." This rule, which was used in England and the United States for hundreds of years, held that the "sovereign" (here, the government) could not be sued for its acts or decisions, even if harm came to individuals as a result.

Note: Public employees themselves retain immunity for any negligent act committed in the course and scope of their employment, but that immunity does not extend to intentional acts.

(Learn more about Negligence and Fault for an Accident.)

What Is (and Is Not) Covered by the MTCA

The MTCA allows injured persons to sue for the harm caused by negligent government employees, in much the same way that an injured person could sue a negligent private entity. For example, the following types of claims might appear in the Massachusetts Court of Claims:

  • Negligently operating a government-owned motor vehicle. If a government employee negligently causes injury while driving as part of his or her job, the public employer may face liability in the Court of Claims. (Learn more about Car Accidents Caused by Negligence.)
  • Defects in public buildings. Spills, broken flooring, loose hand rails: the number of dangerous or defective property conditions that might exist in a public building are many, and any might support a lawsuit against the government when employees knew or should have known about the condition but did not take appropriate steps to fix the condition or warn visitors.
  • Medical care or treatment provided to patients. Doctors and nurses who work for state-run medical facilities may be liable for medical negligence if the care they provide patients falls below accepted medical standards.

The MTCA limits liability against government employers in certain ways, however, including a $100,000 per-plaintiff cap on damages, except that "all claims for serious bodily injury against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority shall not be subject to a $100,000 limitation on compensatory damages."

Filing a Claim Against Municipal Governments in Massachusetts

Claims against both municipal and state governments in Massachusetts must first be filed with the employer in charge of the potentially negligent employee. When the claim is against a municipal employee, it should be filed with the municipality. Many cities, including the City of Boston, offer instructions and forms for filing these claims on their official websites. The time limits for filing these claims are the same at both the municipal and state levels.

Time Limits for Filing a Claim Against the Government in Massachusetts

Before a claim against a public employer can be filed in the Court of Claims, the injured person must first present the claim in writing to "the executive officer" of the employer. This claim must be presented within two years of the date of injury, and the injured person must wait for the claim to be accepted or rejected before filing with the Court of Claims. Claims that involve the sexual abuse of a child, however, do not have to be presented to the employer before they are filed in court.

Once the claim is presented to the public employer, the employer has six months to pay it, settle it, or reject it. If the public employer rejects the claim, the injured person may file with the Court of Claims. This filing must be made within three years of the date of injury.

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