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Companies can't rely on bureaucratic delays to protect themselves from suits over shoddily placed utility covers on local roads

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a bicyclist can sue the downtown-Boston steam company for injuries he suffered when an allegedly misaligned utility cover on New Sudbury Street threw him to the ground, because the state law that governs complaints about road repair only refers to the government bodies that own the roads, not private companies that may have done something to cause a problem on those roads.

The ruling by the state's highest court reverses a Superior Court judge's decision to dismiss Richard Meyer's suit because he filed a formal complaint with Veolia a week past the 30-day limit set by the state's road-repair law - a statute so ancient it still refers to "horses, teams, vehicles and carriages." Meyer filed his demand for payment late because he had originally first formally complained to the city of Boston, which rejected his demand 31 days after the incident, after determining that Veolia, not the municipal Public Works Department, was to blame for the misaligned pipe cover.

The SJC concluded that the law in question specifically refers only to actions of governmental or quasi-governmental bodies, and that private concerns, such as Veolia, remain subject to lawsuits under standard tort law, which does not have a 30-day notification requirement.

According to Meyer's complaint, on July 1, 2013, he was biking down New Sudbury Street when a utility cover, no more than a foot in diameter, and set at an improper angle to the rest of the street, caught one of his wheels, throwing him to the ground and injuring him.

The justices had to try to tease out what legislators might have meant in the 19th-century law, which actually has its origins in an even older law dating to 1786, and which has two separate sections that relate to complaints over road repair, one of which clearly refers to governmental bodies, the other of which makes it sound like it might also apply to "persons," which, as Mitt Romney instructed us, companies are considered a class of.

The court concluded that the second section, which relates to the notification time prior and which is the one that refers to "persons," is subordinate to the first, which only mentions government bodies. And, the court continued, "persons" was left in only for historic reasons, hearkening back to the days when private individuals actually did run and maintain entire roadways in the state, a practice Massachusetts long ago abandoned.

In sum, the road defect and notice statutes provide for liability and notice to governmental and quasi governmental entities responsible for the roadways. Private parties are not covered by these statutes when they cause particular defects in public roadways; rather, they are subject to suits in tort. This becomes evident with close examination of the statutory text, the legislative history of the statutes, and case law, as well as consideration of the practicalities of notice within thirty days.

To reach its conclusions about the nature of the "persons" mentioned in the state law, the justices reached back to an 1883 ruling, written by then SJC Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. involving injuries suffered by Bostonians tripping over the covers of "coal holes" - the underground vaults homes in the tonier sections of Boston used to have, which were supplied via round, normally covered holes in the sidewalk out front. Pedestrians who keep their heads down can still see some of these holes on Back Bay and South End streets.

A Commonwealth Avenue coal-hole cover:

Back Bay coal hole
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PDF icon Entire Meyer decision144.08 KB


Not applicable to this case, but .... what about all of those "private ways" whose maintenance is the responsibility of abutters rather than the town or city?

Voting closed 9

The law at issue in this case answers your question. M.G.L. c. 84, s. 15 makes both governmental entities responsible for public ways and individuals responsible for private ways liable for injuries caused by defects in the ways. But, the important distinction is that that law caps damages to governmental entities at $5,000 total and requires the injured party to provide notice to the government within 30 days of the injury (s. 18). In contrast, the damages cap and notice requirement do NOT apply to private individuals responsible for a private way - a party injured by a defect on a private way may sue the owner under normal negligence tort law for damages appropriate to the type of injury and costs with a much longer notice period.

Voting closed 8

Boston has alley systems which are private ways in various neighborhoods. A travel or fire lane and utility easement (which the underground portion may be maintained by the city) exist to preserve access and the lot owners are responsible to maintain their surface portion to the center line.

This often means parts on some lots are well maintained and paved immediately adjacent lots where there is just gravel or 30-40 year or asphalt with potholes deep enough to bury and elephant in.

Look at a street map for many of these alleys in the South End, North End, Fenway, and Roxbury. If it says "alley" or "private alley" it's an easement maintained by private land owners on either side. Only the "public" alleys are city owned and maintained.

Quite often the private ones won't have a street sign despite a designation on maps because the city isn't going to pay to put up and maintain signs for alleys and roads it doesn't own.

Voting closed 2

A private way is the property of the abutter to the center of the way, but they only own the property under the way. Anyone living on the way, or the sub-division, has a right of usage (fee interest). If you do not live on the way or in the sub-division you have no right of usage. That is why they call it a private way

Voting closed 3

This is a good first step, but it doesn't fully solve the problem.

The goal of the government should be to treat people fairly, not set up arbitrary legal policies that catch people on technicalities.

If you get your complaint in on time, but you send it to the wrong government agency, and they take 31 days to get back to you, it should reset the 30-day clock. You shouldn't get screwed because you complained to the city when it was actually a DCR or Highway Department road.

Or if you couldn't figure out which city you were in. There's no giant Welcome to Cambridge sign here: https://goo.gl/maps/XMN7gpumuiYNycMe9 . In fact, the parking signs are a mixture of Cambridge and Somerville style.

Voting closed 10

You see that little square of granite in the pavement? To the right of the One Way sign post, right at the curb line, to the left of and just above the leftmost stripe in the crosswalk? That is the official, legal city line marker, Boundary Marker Number 17. I have a map (digital version) from 1852 that shows it, right there. It's also described in a boundary lines atlas issued by the Commonwealth's Harbor and Land Commission in 1903.

For White Street, the street is entirely in Cambridge. The sidewalk on the left is in Somerville, until you get to White Street Place; after that, the sidewalk is in Cambridge.

For Elm Street, the street and both sidewalks are in Somerville. West of White Street, and extending almost to Russell Street, the private property (buildings, lawns, parking lots) on the south side of the street is entirely in Cambridge. East of White Street, all the private property is in Somerville.

Voting closed 9

Cool! Does it have a C and S carved into it, or a 17? Or is it a blank square?

Voting closed 2

Here's a photo I took of it, seven years ago. It's still there, but harder to see now because it contrasts less with the rebuilt curb.


Voting closed 6

Win the Treasure Trove of Information award for the month! Nice.

Voting closed 9

That is, the side of White Street next to the Star Market parking lot. I'm not sure why, but they do. I just walked by there an hour ago.

Voting closed 3