(This is the second post of a blog, from Boston Personal Injury Lawyer, the attorney, which considers protections afforded under a Massachusetts statute intended to protect non-profit entities from liability from accidental personal injury)
PART TWO – GL C. 231, S. 85V CONSIDERED
General Laws c. 231, § 85V limits the liability of non profit sports programs to third parties for accidents and injuries arising from the conduct of such programs. However, the limit on liability is not absolute. Specifically, liability can arise for conduct relating to the care and maintenance of real estate which the association uses in connection with a sports program or related activity (G.L. c. 231, § 85V(iii)).
The Plaintiff articulated two reasons why the immunity provided by the statute should not apply to his facts. First, he contended that the statute did not apply because he was neither a participant, nor a spectator at an organized game or practice at the time of the accident. The Court rejected this theory on the basis that the immunity was not controlled by the status of the individual who was injured, but rather on the question of what was the status of the organization. If the injury arose from the conduct of the sports program, the immunity applied. Here, the placement of the goal posts on the field was irrefutably a part of the conduct of its soccer program.
The Plaintiff also contended that the real estate exception in the statute imposed liability on the association. He argued that the associations were negligent in their care and maintenance of Haskell Field by permitting improperly secured goal posts to be present on the property, and that this dangerous condition caused him serious harm. The Court rejected this argument, and an analysis that followed the common law duty of landowners to invitees with regard to unnatural and dangerous conditions on the premises.
The Court reasoned that the legislature, in enacting G.L. c. 231, § 85V, intended to limit liability except in instances where a non profit association engaged in conduct specifically relating to the care and maintenance of real estate, which it owned, possessed or controlled. As there was no definition of “real estate” in the statute, the Court resorted to Black’s Law Dictionary 1263 (6th ed.1990), which defined real estate as “[l]and and anything permanently affixed to the land, such as buildings, fences, and those things attached to the buildings, such as light fixtures, plumbing and heating fixtures, or other such items which would be personal property if not attached.”
The Plaintiff’s complaint specifically alleged that the reasonable and/or proper use of the goal posts and nets required it to be anchored to the ground with stakes, clearly suggesting that the goal posts were easily moveable, not permanently affixed to the field and therefore not part of the real estate. Thus, the harm in this case did not result from a deficiency in the care and maintenance of the field, but rather the improper placement of sports equipment atop the real estate, which was protected conduct under the statute.
Comment: Once again the appellate courts have attempted to make a distinction without a difference. Is the Court saying that if the goalposts failed because the anchoring stakes were driven into an area of the grass, which was too muddy to hold them in place, or too rocky to properly hold the anchors, apparently the statute may have applied. In this case a child was injured because an anchoring system in the ground (real estate) failed. It appears that the problem in this case was the choice of language in the complaint, which simply failed to take into consideration the limitations of G.L. c. 231, s.85V.