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Massachusetts: City Potentially Liable For Officer's Negligence

In this case involving a university police officer who was injured by an
escaped prisoner, the Superior Court of Massachusetts denied summary
judgment to the City of Worcester. The Court held that a jury could find
the City's officer was grossly negligent and that his acts or omissions led
to the plaintiff's injuries.

Following his arrest by the Worcester Police Department on January 30,
1995, Norman Labonte was taken to the University of Massachusetts Medical
Center. Labonte had reportedly ingested cocaine and threatened police
officers at the time of his arrest. While at the medical center, prisoners
are at all times to be guarded by Worcester police, remain handcuffed, and
wear leg shackles attached to the bed.

On January 31, 1995, Worcester police officer Thomas Payne was assigned to
guard Labonte. Although evidence indicates that Payne knew Labonte was not
properly restrained--he wore only leg shackles attached to the bed, which
in turn were attached to his wrist instead of his ankle--he made no effort
to properly restrain him. When Labonte escaped Payne was positioned between
his bed and the window, leaving a clear path to the door. Payne was looking
out the window when a nurse entered and informed him that Labonte was gone.
Labonte's leg shackle was dangling from the bed, and he had arranged
pillows under the blanket to make it appear as if he were sleeping.

When plaintiff Stephen. P. LaMachia, a University of Massachusetts police
officer, received word of the escape he attempted to apprehend Labonte and
violent struggle ensued. LaMachia was injured when he was thrown out of a
police car that Labonte had stolen.

LaMachia brought a civil suit against the city seeking damages for his
injuries. The city moved for summary judgment claiming it was "not liable
because (i) there [was] no evidence of gross negligence as required by
G.L.c. 258 § 10(i), and (ii) the harm was caused by the violent or tortious
conduct of a third person. G.L.c. 258, § 10(j)."

The Superior Court of Massachusetts at Worcester denied the motion holding:
1) Pursuant to G.L.c., 258 § 10(i), "liability under G.L.c. 258 may not be
based on a claim arising out of the escape of a prisoner 'unless gross
negligence is shown . . .'" In the case at bar, the court held a jury could
find that Payne acted with gross negligence.

2) Pursuant to G.L.c. 258, § 10(j), liability involving the tortious
conduct of a third person results only when "the act or omission of the
public employer or its agent causes or materially contributes to the
specific condition or situation that results in harm . . . ." In the
present case, the cause of the harm was alleged to have been the direct
result of the public employer's agent, officer Payne; therefore, liability
was attached. See: LaMachia v. City of Worcester, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 467
(Worcester Mass. Superior Court 2004).

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Related legal case

LaMachia v. City of Worcester