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New Hampshire Supreme Court Revives Prisoner's Negligence Action

Last year the New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s negligence claims, finding they were permitted under RSA 507-B:2.

On September 9, 2007, New Hampshire county prisoner Dana Chatman was part of a work crew assigned to clean the Lee County Fair site. Strafford County Dept. of Corrections (DOC) employee Paul Giampa supervised the crew.

Giampa ordered Chatman and other prisoners to load numerous tables and chairs onto an unhitched trailer sitting on uneven, soft ground. Once the trailer was fully loaded, Giampa directed Chatman and others to lift and hitch it to a pickup truck. In the process, however, a weld on the trailer jack or hitch failed, causing the trailer to fall on Chatman’s left leg and ankle. He suffered permanent injuries.

Chatman filed a state court negligence action against Giampa, Strafford County and the DOC, seeking to hold the county liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that Chatman’s claims were barred by RSA 507-B:2 because they did not arise out of the ownership, occupation, maintenance or operation of a motor vehicle.

On appeal, the New Hampshire Supreme Court first determined that resolution of the issue required interpretation of RSA 507-B:2 and related statutes. After conducting an extensive statutory construction analysis, the Court followed the reasoning of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Melchert v. Melchert, 519 N.W.2d 223, 226 (Minn. Ct. App. 1994) to hold that Chatman “was involved in the loading operation when he lifted the fully-loaded trailer and attempted to hitch it to the truck.”

The Supreme Court found that “operating the truck in this case included attempting to hitch the trailer to the truck.” As such, the Court reversed the dismissal of Chatman’s suit, concluding that his claims arose out of the county’s operation of a motor vehicle and thus fell within the scope of RSA 507-B:2. See: Chatman v. Strafford County, 163 N.H. 320, 42 A.3d 853 (N.H. 2012).

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Related legal case

Chatman v. Strafford County