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By Victoria James
The Maine Tort Claims Act provides immunity in negligence actions for all government entities 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 8103. There are four broad exceptions to immunity where the government can be held liable for property damage, bodily injury, or death 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 8104-A. Three recent Maine cases deal with exceptions to immunity.
“Vehicles, Machinery, and Equipment” Exception
In June, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine held that a public university baker could not bring a negligence suit against the University of Maine for a kitchen mixer that caused a severe injury to his finger. Eric Badler v. University of Maine System, 277 A.3d 379 (Me. 2022). The Court reasoned that the kitchen mixer could not fall into the “other machinery or equipment” exception because it was not likely to be transported, accessed by the public, insured, and it was not similar to the items listed in the exception. Since the exception to immunity did not apply, the baker could not sue the university.
Those items listed in the exception include: “motor vehicles, special mobile equipment, trailers, aircraft, watercraft, and snowmobiles.” 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 8104-A(1). In another recent case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine found that the activity did fall within this exception, so the town could be sued. Convery v. Town of Wells, 276 A.3d 504 (Me. 2022). Here, even though the town’s vehicle was not directly involved in a collision, they were exposed to liability due to negligent operation in a high speed chase that resulted in a collision. This ruling is consistent with a 2016 case where a fire department’s response did not fall into the immunity exception because they made imprudent tactical decisions. See, Day’s Auto Body, Inc. v. Town of Medway, 145 A.3d 1030, 1036 (Me. 2016).
“Public Building” Exception
The public building exception to immunity includes “the construction, operation, or maintenance of any public building or the appurtenances to any building.” 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 8104-A(2). When one of these building features is at issue, immunity does not apply and the government entity can be sued. However, the “appurtenance” exception creates confusion. In an effort to define appurtenance, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine said it must be “(1) physically annexed to the realty, (2) adapted to the realty, and (3) intended to be irremovable from the realty.” McDonald v. City of Portland, 239 A.3d 662 (Me. 2020). The Court summarized that an appurtenance must not be personal property, but rather a fixture.
In March, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine held that a slip and fall in the parking lot of a public university does not fall within the exception to immunity; therefore, one cannot sue. Klein v. University of Maine System, 271 A.3d 777 (Me. 2022). The parking lot is “not unique or integral” to the university libraries. Id. at 782. In comparison, the injury in McDonald occurred on a plaza sharing a border and a roof with the police station, functioning as an annex so that the exception permits a lawsuit. The Court also distinguished a parking lot from external stairs that lead into a public building, because those stairs fall within the definition of an appurtenance, meaning that the immunity exception applies. See, Rodriguez v. Town of Moose River, 922 A.2d 484 (Me. 2007).
Further, the Court discussed a case where immunity applied to football bleachers, which are clearly not attached to a public building and are more accessible to the public. See, Searle v. Town of Bucksport, 3 A.3d 390 (Me. 2010). Neither bleachers nor parking lots meet any of the requirements necessary to qualify as an appurtenance; they are not (1) annexed to a building, (2) adapted to a building, or (3) intended to be irremovable from a building.
As seen through this caselaw, Maine courts exhibit a commitment to sticking to the statutory language in each of the four exceptions to immunity. In Maine’s most recent mention of MTCA, the Court notes that the statute incentivizes government entities to make their property publicly available. With this in mind, it makes sense that the courts allow incidents which occur in public parking lots to trigger immunity but do not allow immunity to incidents on plazas attached to public buildings.
For more information, contact Victoria James at [email protected].