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Miller v. Young Men's Christian Association of Central Massachusetts

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

August 29, 2016

Kimberly J. Miller, Individually and as Executrix of the Estate of Thomas Miller
v.
The Young Men's Christian Association of Central Massachusetts et al No. 134853

         Filed August 30, 2016

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          DENNIS J. CURRAN, Associate Justice.

         Factual Background

         On January 2, 2012, Mr. Thomas Miller, a 62-year-old retiree, went to his local YMCA to work out. Mr. Miller was a member of the " Silver Sneakers" program, designed to promote YMCA membership among older people. He checked in at the front desk at about 5:55 a.m., and at some point, went to use the steam room. The front desk employee observed that at the time he came in, he appeared unwell and " pale."

         At about 7 a.m., another YMCA member discovered Mr. Miller lying unconscious on the floor of the steam room, with hot steam blasting upon his body. An emergency call button outside the steam room was activated which alerted the front desk staff person. A call was placed to 911, but in the meantime, two YMCA employees tried to gain access to the locked steam control room to shut off the steam vent. They were unable to do so because the only way to access that room was by a master access key, which only certain YMCA employees had, none of whom was immediately available.[1] The YMCA disputes this, claiming instead that one of its employees did obtain a key, and was able to unlock the steam control door and shut off the steam vent. Another employee tried to use a defibrillator on Mr. Miller, which did not work because of the moisture on Mr. Miller's body and the unavailability of extra pads.

         Mr. Miller was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was diagnosed with second-degree burns covering 12-15% of his body, including his face. He underwent multiple surgeries, but died about three weeks later. This lawsuit alleges a violation of the wrongful death statute on behalf of Mr. Miller's beneficiaries (count I), conscious pain and suffering (count II), and gross negligence (count III). Specifically, count I and II allege negligence and count III, gross negligence. YMCA Memorandum at page 3.

         On the issue of liability, the YMCA states that at the time of this tragic incident, a " Danger sign was posted outside the steam room which cautioned people, among other things: " Do not use alone . . ." There is disputed evidence regarding access to the control room to enable a staff person to shut off the steam room valve. The only YMCA employee authorized to enter the control room was Kenneth McArthur, who was in his basement office at the time the alarm was sounded. Although Patrick Carmody had a key to that room, he was not permitted to use it, while Mr. Miller lay on the floor with water scalding his limp body. Even the responding EMTs could not gain access to the steam control room. It was another five minutes while Mr. McArthur watched efforts by others to attend to Mr. Miller before he finally shut off the steam control valve.

         The YMCA concedes that it never considered placing an emergency alarm inside the steam room (although there was one directly outside it), and further, admits that if a person became incapacitated inside the room, that individual could not set off the alarm.

         Mr. Miller's estate seeks to make much of the facts that the YMCA officials at the facility had: 1.) no steam room safety policy; 2.) no " walk through locker room logs"; 3.) no regular staff inspections of the steam room; 4.) no risk management classes for its employees; 5.) no discussion of members' health risks in using the steam room; 6.) no discussions about " having any doctors or other medical professionals present or on-call" if an older member's health became emergent; 7.) no official member clearance was required of Silver Sneaker members; and 8.) no written logs of inspections of the steam room. Perhaps more importantly, the estate claims that when EMT personnel responded to the scene, they still could not gain access to the control room to shut off the valve in the steam room where Mr. Miller's body still lay, with his flesh burning, unconscious on the floor.

         All of the defendants--the YMCA and its two officers, President Kathryn Hunter and Vice President Ken Mierzykowski--have filed motions for summary judgment, contending that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Additionally, the YMCA has moved separately for summary judgment because it says that Mr. Miller signed a waiver that, it contends, absolves it of any liability.

         THE APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARD

          The Court will grant summary judgment only when there are no genuine issues of material fact. See Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of a triable issue and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. ; Madsen v. Erwin, 395 Mass. 715, 719, 481 N.E.2d 1160 (1985). Where the burden of proof at trial rests with the non-moving party, the moving party may satisfy its summary judgment burden by either presenting " affirmative evidence negating an essential element" of the non-moving party's case or " by demonstrating that proof of that element is unlikely to be forthcoming at trial." Flesner v. Technical Commc'ns Corp., 410 Mass. 805, 809, 575 N.E.2d 1107 (1991).

          " Where a moving party properly asserts that there is no genuine issue of material fact, 'the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented.'" Id., quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). All of the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Foster v. Group Health, Inc., 444 Mass. 668, 672, 830 N.E.2d ...


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