Spring v. Geriatric Authority of Holyoke

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation394 Mass. 274,475 N.E.2d 727
Decision Date14 March 1985

Raymond R. Randall, Holyoke (Thomas J. Donoghue, Springfield, with him), for Geriatric Authority of Holyoke.

James P. Keane, Boston (Alice J. Klein, Boston, with him), for plaintiff.


HENNESSEY, Chief Justice.

This is an action by Blanche Spring, individually and as executrix under the will of her husband, Earle Spring (decedent), against the Geriatric Authority of Holyoke (Authority) and ten other defendants concerning incidents that occurred while the decedent was a patient at the Holyoke Geriatric and Convalescent Center (Center), a hospital owned and operated by the Authority.

Earle Spring was seventy-eight years old when he entered the Center on November 8, 1978, and remained a resident of the facility until his death on April 6, 1980. In 1979, his family filed a petition in the Probate Court seeking permission to remove him from life-sustaining kidney dialysis treatments. Following court proceedings, it was determined that dialysis could be withheld. Matter of Spring, 380 Mass. 629, 405 N.E.2d 115 (1980). Upon learning of the court order authorizing the termination of dialysis treatments, nurses Joyce Webster and Cathy McEvady spoke with Spring and asked him a series of questions, including whether he wanted to die, to which he responded, "No." Shortly thereafter, Webster, McEvady and four medical aides, Maureen Brown, Ardina Talbert, Beverly Chmiel, and Barbara Beckett composed a letter to the local newspaper expressing their opposition to the court order. A transcript of the questions asked the decedent and his answers was also prepared. Prior to taking these documents to the newspaper, the nurses showed their letter to Frederick Mues, administrator of the Center, who approved its contents. Both documents were then published on the front page of the Holyoke Transcript on January 21, 1980.

During the evening of January 20, 1980, the decedent was visited by a nurse, Donna McDonough, and a doctor, Nelson Gillet, neither of whom was affiliated with the Authority or involved in any way with the decedent's medical care. These visits were approved by Mues; no permission was sought from or given by the decedent's family or guardian. Nurses Winifred Greany and Joan Walohan were present during these visits, in which McDonough and Gillet questioned the decedent. The latter two then prepared affidavits based upon their observations which were used to support a motion to intervene in the ongoing court proceedings involving the termination of the decedent's dialysis treatment.

On July 30, 1980, the plaintiff commenced this action in the Superior Court. Her complaint and amended complaint alleged: (1) invasion of the decedent's right of privacy (counts I and II), (2) infliction of emotional distress on the decedent (III and IV) and on the plaintiff in her own right (XI and XII), (3) violation of G.L. c. 111, § 70E (the Patients' Rights Statute) (V and VI), (4) breach of contract (VII), (5) breach of an implied warranty of privacy (VIII), (6) violation of the Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A (IX and X), and (7) violation of G.L. c. 66A, the Fair Information Practices Act (XIII and XIV).

Before trial, the Authority filed a motion for summary judgment. Upon concluding that the Authority's tort liability is governed by the provisions of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G.L. c. 258, the judge allowed partial summary judgment for the Authority with respect to the plaintiff's tort claims of invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress (Counts I, II, III, IV, XI and XII). The judge granted partial summary judgment to the nine individual defendants as to the plaintiff's allegations of violations of contract (Count VII), of implied warranty of privacy (Count VIII), and of G.L. c. 93A (Counts IX and X). At the close of all evidence, he directed verdicts for the defendants Paul, Chmiel, Talbert, Brown, and Beckett and allowed motions by the defendants Greany, Webster, McEvady, and Walohan for directed verdicts with respect to their alleged violations of G.L. c. 66A (Counts XIII and XIV) and the claims against them for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (Counts III, IV, XI and XII). The plaintiff's G.L. c. 111, § 70E, claims (Counts V and VI), were referred to a medical malpractice tribunal in accordance with G.L. c. 231, § 60B. The tribunal found that the Authority's alleged violations of the Patients' Rights Statute were not appropriate matters for their consideration and this finding has not been appealed. At trial, the plaintiff moved for all remaining counts, including the G.L. c. 93A and G.L. c. 66A issues, to be tried by jury. This motion was allowed.

The jury returned verdicts for defendants Greany, Webster, McEvady, and Walohan on the plaintiff's invasion of privacy counts. With respect to the Authority, the jury returned verdicts for the plaintiff and awarded her $30,000 in damages for violations of G.L. c. 93A, $50,000 in damages for breach of contract, and $2,500,000 in exemplary damages for violations of G.L. c. 66A. The judge allowed the Authority's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to the G.L. c. 93A claims; reduced the contract damages to a nominal $1; and, finding the G.L. c. 66A award excessive, ordered the plaintiff to remit all but $100,000 or submit to a retrial on the issue of damages. The plaintiff refused to remit and the judge ordered a new trial against the Authority limited to the issue of exemplary damages payable to the plaintiff under G.L. c. 66A.

The sum of all the foregoing proceedings was that all counts against all parties, except the G.L. c. 66A counts against the Authority, had been disposed of either by verdicts of the jury or rulings of the judge.

At the second trial the jury returned a verdict against the Authority for violations of G.L. c. 66A in the amount of $1,000,000. The Authority's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial were denied. In response to the plaintiff's "motion for clarification," the judge ruled that prejudgment interest would not be added to the G.L. c. 66A award. The plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $191,727 was allowed.

The Authority appeals from the denial of its motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict following the second trial as well as from the judgments in both trials. The Authority contends that: (1) G.L. c. 66A does not apply to the Authority; (2) a cause of action under G.L. c. 66A does not survive the death of the injured party; (3) a cause of action under G.L. c. 66A is an equity action and therefore was not properly before the jury in the first trial; (4) the exemplary damages awarded by the jury were excessive and against the weight of evidence; (5) the trial judge erred in limiting the second trial to the issue of damages; and (6) the award of plaintiff's attorneys' fees was improper.

In her appeal, the plaintiff challenges the remittitur order; the judge's ruling on interest; his allowance of summary judgment on the plaintiff's tort claims against the Authority; the judgment notwithstanding the verdicts on the G.L. c. 93A count; the reduction of contract damages to $1; the dismissal of her claim against the Authority for violation of an implied warranty of privacy; and the dismissal of counts against defendant McDonough for lack of jurisdiction. We granted the plaintiff's application for direct appellate review.

We conclude that the Authority is not subject to suit under G.L. c. 66A. Therefore, judgment for the Authority is required on these counts. On all other issues necessary to reach on appeal, we affirm the rulings of the trial judge.

1. Applicability of G.L. c. 66A.

Although it is undisputed that employees of the Authority released, without permission of the decedent or his family, information defined as "personal data" under G.L. c. 66A (Act), 3 the Authority contends that it is not subject to suit under that statute. 4 The Legislature created the Authority by special act which provides in relevant part: "The Authority shall have the following powers and duties: ... (b) To sue and be sued, but only to the same extent and upon the same conditions that a city or town may be sued." St.1971, c. 554, § 8(b), as amended by St.1973, c. 1097, § 1. While there is no legislative history available to explain the reasons for § 8(b), it is apparent from reading the special act as a whole that, although the Authority has a semi-independent character, it remains closely tied to the city of Holyoke. See §§ 3, 4, 8(c), (d), (i), (k), (l), (m), (n), and 10A of the special act, St.1971, c. 554, amended by St.1973, c. 1097, § 1. In transferring the operation of Holyoke's municipal nursing home to the Authority, the Legislature intended to maintain the same level of liability as would apply to the city. See § 8(b) of the special act.

The plaintiff argues that the Authority may be sued under G.L. c. 66A by reason of that statute's definition of subject agencies which includes "any authority created by the general court to serve a public purpose, having either statewide or local jurisdiction." This language would indeed appear to encompass the Authority. However, G.L. c. 66A was not intended to apply to "units of county, city or town governments." See First Interim Report of the Special Legislative Commission, 1975 House Doc. No. 5417, at 34; Brant, Barron, Jaffe, Graceffa, & Wallis, Public Records, FIPA and CORI: How Massachusetts Balances Privacy and the Right to Know, 15 Suffolk U.L.Rev. 23, 39 n. 112 (1981) (excluded from ambit of proposed statute were units of county, city and town government). According to legislative history,...

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