The New Year began on a tragic note in Boston, as a woman was killed crossing the Meridian Street drawbridge to East Boston. The exact causes of the incident remain under investigation, but questions have naturally been raised about whether the incident could have been prevented.

Initial reports indicate that the bridge was operated by the City of Boston’s Department of Public Works. From a legal perspective, this raises a frequently misunderstood legal issue in Massachusetts. What happens when a city or town in Massachusetts contributes to an accident? Can they be held liable? Can’t the City be sued? The answer may surprise some.

Under Massachusetts law, public employees, including employees of cities and towns, are immune from lawsuits, even if they are negligent. Thus, unlike a typical accident, where both an employee and his employer can be sued and held liable, in Massachusetts a case against the employee can not even be brought. The only claim that remains is one against the public entity such as the city or town.

In a claim against a city or town in Massachusetts, however, damages are limited to $100,000 no matter how terrible the harm. No punitive damages are available. This is not true in some states, where public entities can be held liable just as a private citizen.

Public entities like cities and towns are also protected by a short statute of limitations. Further, claims against public entities in Massachusetts must be “presented” to the public employer in a very detailed way before they can go forward. All of these legal requirements can be found in the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, General Laws Chapter 258.

Despite the legal protection of public employers under the Act, it is important to bear in mind that the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act only applies to public employers and employees. Often, private contractors are involved in many aspects of public functions–from design to construction to operation to repair of things like bridges, tunnels, and buildings. These private contractors will be liable for any negligence that causes harm.

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act makes it essential for anyone seeking recourse for injury or death involving a public entity to take steps to ensure that all potential responsible parties are identified and held accountable. This is best done by experienced attorneys working alongside other investigators but on behalf of the person harmed.

SUGARMAN has a team of dedicated personal injury attorneys who represent those who have been injured. If you have been hurt in an accident and wish to speak to one of our attorneys regarding liability, please fill out a Contact Form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or e-mail