McDonald v. City of Portland, 101320 MESC, Cum-19-494

Docket Nº:Cum-19-494
Opinion Judge:CONNORS, J.
Party Name:ROBIN MCDONALD et al. v. CITY OF PORTLAND
Attorney:John J. Wall, III, Esq. (orally), Monaghan Leahy, LLP, Portland, for appellant City of Portland Gerard P. Conley, Jr., Esq., and Kenneth Hovermale, Esq. (orally), Cloutier, Conley & Duffett, PA, Portland, for appellees Robin McDonald and Robert Pelletier
Judge Panel:Panel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, and CONNORS, JJ.
Case Date:October 13, 2020
Court:Supreme Judicial Court of Maine
 
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2020 ME 119

ROBIN MCDONALD et al.

v.

CITY OF PORTLAND

No. Cum-19-494

Supreme Court of Maine

October 13, 2020

Argued: September 15, 2020

John J. Wall, III, Esq. (orally), Monaghan Leahy, LLP, Portland, for appellant City of Portland

Gerard P. Conley, Jr., Esq., and Kenneth Hovermale, Esq. (orally), Cloutier, Conley & Duffett, PA, Portland, for appellees Robin McDonald and Robert Pelletier

Panel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, and CONNORS, JJ.

CONNORS, J.

[¶1] The City of Portland appeals from the denial by the Superior Court (Cumberland County, O'Neil, J.) of its motion for summary judgment on immunity grounds in a suit brought by Robert Pelletier and his wife, Robin McDonald, based on injuries that Pelletier allegedly received after falling on ice outside of the Portland Police Department. Because the plaza where he fell is an appurtenance to a public building within the meaning of the Maine Tort Claims Act, 14 M.R.S. § 8104-A(2) (2020), we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶2] The following facts are undisputed. On February 17, 2017, Pelletier slipped and fell on a patch of ice after exiting the lobby of the Portland Police Department headquarters building. Pelletier fell approximately six to eight feet from the door of the building. The area where he fell is a brick-paved plaza that extends from the entrance of the building to Middle Street and to a parking garage. The plaza is partially open to the sky above; a portion of the building's auditorium overhangs the area where Pelletier fell.

[¶3] The entire area underneath the plaza is part of the Portland Police Department headquarters building. That part of the building is used as a holding pen and a parking area for command staff and an evidence technician truck, and it is accessed through an overhead door that faces Middle Street.

[¶4] The plaza is used by pedestrians for access to the Department building, a parking garage, and Middle Street. Department staff use the plaza to park motorcycles and bicycles; however, such parking is not allowed in the area of the plaza where Pelletier fell. People also use the plaza to eat lunch outside.

[¶5] Photographs of the plaza, with a marking indicating where Pelletier fell, appear in the record, some of which appear below as Figures 1, 2, and 3.

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[¶6] McDonald and Pelletier filed a complaint against the City in 2018, claiming negligence and loss of consortium. The City asserted a number of affirmative defenses, including that it was immune from suit because the claims did not fall within an exception to immunity contained in the Maine Tort Claims Act. The City sought summary judgment on that ground, and McDonald and Pelletier opposed the motion, arguing that it should be denied as a matter of law, or, alternatively, that it should be denied because of purported issues of material fact regarding the design, use, and purpose of the plaza.1

[¶7] On November 21, 2019, the court entered an order denying the City's motion. Without elaboration, the court concluded that there were unidentified "material issues of fact in dispute regarding whether or not the fall took place in an appurtenance to a government building which would be an exception to immunity." The City timely appealed. See 14 M.R.S. § 1851 (2020); M.R.App. P. 2B(c)(1).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Reviewability of the Summary Judgment Motion

[¶8] Appeals from the denial of a motion for summary judgment are "generally barred by the final judgment rule." Rodriguez v. Town of Moose River, 2007 ME 68, ¶ 16, 922 A.2d 484. "We have consistently held, however, that the denial of a motion for summary judgment based on a claim of immunity is immediately reviewable pursuant to an exception to the final judgment rule." J.R.M., Inc. v. City of Portland, 669 A.2d 159, 160 (Me. 1995); see also Polley v. Atwell, 581 A.2d 410, 412 (Me. 1990) (noting that "because immunity is . . . immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability," it "is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial" (emphasis omitted) (quotation marks omitted)). Pursuant to this exception, we will reach the merits of an appeal "[e]ven when the trial court decides that there is a dispute of material fact" so long as the parties do not dispute the facts material to the legal question of immunity. Rodriguez, 2007 ME 68, ¶¶ 16-17, 922 A.2d 484; Paschal v. City of Bangor, 2000 ME 50, ¶¶ 1 & n.1, 11, 747 A.2d 1194.

[¶9] In this case, although the court denied the City's motion for summary judgment on the basis that there were "material issues of fact in dispute regarding whether or not the fall took place in an appurtenance to a government building which would be an exception to immunity," the parties do not dispute the location of Pelletier's fall, the characteristics of the plaza, or the uses of the plaza, and do not otherwise contend that there are genuine disputes of material fact. The question of whether the plaza is a public building or an appurtenance to a public building is therefore a legal question, not a factual one. See Tolliver v. Dep't of Transp., 2008 ME 83, ¶ 10 n.5, 948 A.2d 1223 (explaining that although the issue of immunity can be "intertwined with the facts of a case," the availability of immunity pursuant to the Maine Tort Claims Act "generally turns on the proper interpretation of the statute, absent a dispute of material fact, and is therefore a question of law").2 Accordingly, we reach the merits of the City's appeal. See Rodriguez, 2007 ME 68, ¶¶ 16-17, 922 A.2d 484; Paschal, 2000 ME 50, ¶¶ 1 & n.1, 11, 747 A.2d 1194.

B. The Public Building Exception to Immunity

[¶10] The City argues that the undisputed facts show that the plaza where Pelletier fell does not fall into the public building exception to sovereign immunity, and, therefore, both Pelletier's claim and McDonald's derivative loss of consortium claim should be disposed of on immunity grounds. See Brown v. Crown Equip. Corp., 2008 ME 186, ¶ 23, 960 A.2d 1188 (holding "that loss of consortium claims necessarily arise from the same negligent act as the underlying tort claims and are therefore subject to the same rules and limitations").

[¶11] "We review a denial of a motion for summary judgment based on a claim of immunity for errors of law, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Rodriguez, 2007 ME 68, ¶ 19, 922 A.2d 484. Absent a dispute of material fact, whether or not a governmental entity is entitled to immunity is a question of law that we review de novo. See Tolliver, 2008 ME 83, ¶¶ 10 n.5, 11, 948 A.2d 1223.

[¶12] Governmental immunity is codified in the Maine Tort Claims Act (MTCA), 14 M.R.S. §§ 8101-8118 (2020). The MTCA provides as a general rule that "all governmental entities shall be immune from suit on any and all tort claims seeking recovery of damages." Id. § 8103(1). This immunity, however, is limited by several exceptions, including the public building exception, which states that "[a] governmental entity is liable for its negligent acts or omissions in the construction, operation or maintenance of any public building or the appurtenances to any public building." Id. § 8104-A(2). Exceptions to immunity, such as the public building exception, "are strictly construed so as to adhere to immunity as the general rule." See Searle v. Town of Bucksport, 2010 ME 89, ¶ 9, 3A.3d30.

[¶13] As an initial matter, there appears to be no dispute that the...

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