By Jason R.L. Major – New Hampshire Civil Litigation Attorney
A lot of clients we represent at Douglas, Leonard & Garvey involve claims against municipalities. Many of the claims are employment-related, and many are related to police misconduct. Litigating against government defendants involves challenges that do not arise in more difficult than making a claim against a private organization, because towns and cities and their officials are shrouded in many layers of immunities from suit. They included so-called “official immunity,” “discretionary function immunity,” “qualified immunity,” “
” and others.
Recently, municipalities have been asserting a claim for immunity under RSA 507-B. RSA 507-B is a statute that was enacted to regulate claims against municipalities. It was enacted in the wake of a 1974 N.H. Supreme Court case captioned Merrill v. Manchester. In the Merrill case, the Supreme Court struck down “blanket” immunities protecting municipalities that had their roots in the old concept of “sovereign immunity” – literally that “the king could do no wrong.” However, the Court allowed the State Legislature to enact reasonable limitations on suits against municipalities, including damages caps. RSA 507-B was the Legislature’s attempt to put the Court’s “reasonable limitations” into practice.
Unfortunately, RSA 507-B contains some poorly worded sections that, when read together, could be read as prohibiting any claims that were not based on a municipality’s use or maintenance of its vehicles or premises. Of course, if the statute were read that way, it would lead to the unreasonable sort of “blanket” immunity that was struck down by the Supreme Court in Merrill. Nevertheless, municipal defendants have seized upon the confusing language of the statute in an attempt to shield themselves from liability.
Plaintiffs with claims against the municipalities have recently turned the tables though. In a recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, captioned John Farrelly v. City of Concord, et al., Magistrate Judge Landya McCafferty ruled that the defendant’s “blanket immunity” interpretation of RSA 507-B was wrong, and held that the City defendants did not have immunity from suit under this section. The defendants, in that case, have requested that the District Court certify a question to the New Hampshire Supreme Court asking whether the District Court’s interpretation of the statute is correct.
In another case before the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, Huckins v. McSweeney, et al., Judge Joseph DeClerico has decided to certify to the New Hampshire Supreme Court the question of whether the Town of Sanborton’s “blanket immunity” interpretation of RSA 507-B is constitutional. The plaintiff, in this case, is represented by Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C. We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold its decision in Merrill v. Manchester and rule that the defendant’s interpretation of RSA 507-B is incorrect and, even if the statute could literally be interpreted as the defendants' wish, that doing so would lead to an unconstitutional result.
This is good news for plaintiffs with claims against municipalities. In a few months, there will likely be one less immunity hurdle to overcome in order to successfully obtain recoveries in their cases.
If you think you have a case against a municipality, please contact Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C. at (603) 288-1403 or fill out our online contact form to see if one of our experienced civil litigation lawyers may be able to help you.