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Coren-Hall v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

February 23, 2017

ALEXIS D. COREN-HALL [1]
v.
MASSACHUSETTS BAY TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY.

          Heard: December 13, 2016.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on May 16, 2012.

         The case was heard by Peter M. Lauriat, J., on a motion for summary judgment, and a motion for reconsideration was considered by him.

          Amy Bratskeir (Jonathan P. Feltner also present) for the defendant.

          Albert E. Grady for the plaintiff.

          Present: Milkey, Massing, & Sacks, JJ.

          SACKS, J.

         The defendant, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), appeals from a Superior Court order denying its renewed motion for summary judgment on plaintiff Alexis D. Coren-Hall's tort claim under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G. L. c. 258. The MBTA's motion asserted that Coren-Hall had failed to make presentment of her claim to the MBTA's "executive officer, " as required by G. L. c. 258, § 4. The judge denied the motion on the ground that, although Coren-Hall had not made presentment to the MBTA's executive officer, the executive officer nevertheless had "actual notice" of the claim. We conclude that the MBTA's motion should have been allowed.[2]

         Background.

         Coren-Hall 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. After she filed suit on May 16, 2012, 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. In July, 2015, the MBTA filed a renewed motion for summary judgment on that basis.[3]Under G. L. c. 258, § 4, a tort claim against a public employer must be presented to its "executive officer, " defined in G. L. c. 258, § 1, inserted by St. 1978, c. 512, § 15, as its "nominal chief executive officer or board, "[4] within two years after the cause of action arose. The MBTA's motion asserted that, although Coren-Hall had timely mailed notice of her claim to the MBTA "Claims Department, " she had never sent such notice to the executive officer. The judge denied the MBTA's motion, and this appeal followed.[5]

         Discussion.

         The parties' joint statement of material facts established as undisputed that Coren-Hall's then-attorney had timely 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." The joint statement further established that Coren-Hall herself neither personally communicated with any MBTA personnel (including its executive officer) within the two-year period after the accident, nor knew what other communications her attorney might have had with such MBTA personnel in that period. The MBTA admitted that in the fall of 2014, after the two-year presentment period had passed, it had made settlement offers to Coren-Hall and the remaining plaintiffs other than Pruitt, and that those plaintiffs, but not Coren-Hall, had accepted the offers and settled their cases. See note 1, supra.

         The judge, in denying the MBTA's summary judgment motion, noted that Coren-Hall did "not dispute that she presented her claim to the Claims Department, and not the executive officer of the MBTA as required by the statute." Nevertheless, the judge reasoned, "the MBTA was only able to extend settlement offers upon conducting an investigation of the plaintiffs' claims and receiving approval from those officials with the authority to negotiate a settlement, " and accordingly, it was "apparent that the designated executive officer of the MBTA had actual notice of Ms. Coren-Hall's claim." The judge relied on the recognized "actual notice" exception, under which "the presentment requirement will be deemed fulfilled if the plaintiff can show that, despite defective presentment, the designated executive officer had actual notice of the written claim." Bellanti v. Boston Pub. Health Commn., 70 Mass.App.Ct. 401, 407 (2007), citing Lopez v. Lynn Hous. Authy., 440 Mass. 1029, 1030 (2003). This was error.

         "[T]he actual notice exception is narrow." Bellanti, supra at 407. "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." I_d. at 408, citing Garcia v. Essex County Sheriff's ...


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