May 20, 2018
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High court upholds ruling in injury case involving bleachers

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

BUCKSPORT, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, in a split decision, has upheld a lower court ruling that the town of Bucksport and Bucksport High School are exempt from tort claims stemming from an incident in 2006 when a man was injured on the football field bleachers at the school.

In a 4-3 decision, the law court last week rejected the appeal from John W. Searle whose Superior Court complaint claimed that the town and high school had been negligent in maintaining the visitors’ bleachers at the high school football field.

According to his attorney, Searle, whose hometown was not given, had attended a football game and suffered a serious leg injury when he fell through an opening in the bleachers where boards were missing.

The school’s maintenance director had noticed the missing boards and failed to replace them or cordon off the area, according to the documents.

The town and high school sought a summary judgment asserting that they were entitled to immunity to Searle’s claim under the Maine Tort Claims Act. That law, according to court documents, provides immunity to governmental entities for claims seeking recovery of damage, except in certain cases, including the public build-ing exception. That exception provides that a governmental entity is liable for its negligence in the construction, operation or maintenance of any public building or the appurtenances to any public building.

The Superior Court granted the summary judgment based on its opinion that the bleachers are not a public building or appurtenance to a public building.

Searle’s appeal contended that the court had erred in that decision.

Writing for the majority, Justice Andrew M. Mead pointed out that the law court previously had ruled that an athletic field associated with a high school was not an appurtenance to the high school building under Maine tort claims law. Mead also noted that because of the temporary nature of the bleachers, which had been dis-mantled and reassembled and then dismantled again, they must be considered personal property and not a fixture, which would have qualified as an appurtenance to the school.

“Because we conclude that the visitors’ bleachers meet none of the requirements necessary to qualify as fixtures, and because they clearly do not constitute a building, they constitute personal property and cannot be considered appurtenances …,” Mead wrote.

In writing the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Joseph M. Jabar argued that the visitors’ bleachers, like the home team bleachers across the way, were permanent structures.

“They provided the same function, they exposed the public to the same physical risks, and they imposed upon the high school the same obligation to make them safe for spectators,” Jabar wrote. “Yet the practical effect of the decision is that the town of Bucksport and the Bucksport School Department are immune from liability for the bleachers on one side of the field but not necessarily the bleachers on the other side. The Legislature could not have intended such an illogical result.”

Jabar noted that the 10-level bleachers were assembled on a metal frame that rested on the ground and could not be moved without being disassembled. They had remained in place for six years before the accident in 2006.

“They were a structure that belonged to the high school building and supported the core functions of the high school,” he wrote. “As such, they were an appurtenance to the high school.”

The two groups of justices also disagreed over a section of Maine tort law that provides immunity to government entities for any claim involving structures, facilities or equipment designed for use primarily by the public in connection with public outdoor recreation.

The majority of the justices interpreted the law to include spectators in the stands as well as the players on the field and ruled that the town and school department were again entitled to immunity from Searle’s claim.

The minority opinion, however, was that the law excludes passive activities when referring to outdoor recreation and that “paying to watch a high school football game from the bleachers does not fit the definition of outdoor recreation.”

The law court was Searle’s last recourse in this case since it was “particular to state law and involved an interpretation of the Maine Tort Claims law,” according to Searle’s attorney, Robert Furbish of the Lewiston firm of Berman & Simmons.

Furbish said Tuesday that, based on the arguments, the court should have ruled in their favor.

“We agreed with the three dissenting justices,” he said, “but that didn’t help us at all.”

Furbish said he hoped that the split decision shows that there is “clearly a lack of clarity in the Maine Tort Claims Act.”

In addition to Justice Mead, those joining the majority opinion were Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, and Justices Jon D. Levy and Ellen A. Gorman. Joining Justice Jabar in the dissenting opinion were Justices Donald G. Alexander and Warren M. Silver.

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