Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules No Immunity for Affirmative Act in Connection with Decedent’s Suicide


By: Eric Martignetti

In the recent decision of Williams v. Boston Public Health Commission, the Massachusetts Appeals Court partly reversed the trial court’s dismissal of claims brought by the plaintiff against the Boston Public Health Commission (“Commission”).
The plaintiff alleged negligence against the Commission arising out of the death of the plaintiff’s decedent.  As alleged in the Amended Complaint, the staff at a homeless shelter called 911 to report that the decedent was experiencing suicidal thoughts.  Boston EMS, which is under the control of the Commission, sent an ambulance to the shelter.  The responding EMTs did not restrain the decedent and did not have a police transport to the hospital.  When they arrived at the hospital, the EMTs opened the door to the ambulance, and the decedent ran into the street where she was killed by a car.
The Court stated that the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) immunizes public employers from “any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.”  G. L. c. 258, § 10(j).  Therefore, the Court held that the Commission could not be held liable for its alleged failure to train or supervise the EMTs.
However, the Court stated that the MTCA does not immunize public employers from a claim “based upon the intervention of a public employee which causes injury to the victim or places the victim in a worse position than [she] was in before the intervention.”  G. L. c. 258, § 10(j).  Therefore, the Court held that the Commission could be held liable for placing the decedent in a worse position because the EMTs transported her from the shelter, where the staff was looking after her and securing help for her, to the hospital, where nobody was able to prevent her from killing herself.
The Court rejected the Commission’s argument that the alleged failure to protect the decedent is an omission from which the Commission should have immunity.  The Court concluded that although the failure to train and supervise was an omission, the transporting of the decedent to the hospital was an affirmative act.
The Court also rejected the Commission’s argument that the EMTs owed not duty to protect the decedent from her own conduct because there was no special relationship between her and the EMTs.  The Court concluded that EMTs have a duty of care to the patients they transport.
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