The Law Tribune previews an important or interesting case most weeks when the state Appellate Court or state Supreme Court is in session.
Case: Maribeth Blonski v. Metropolitan District Commission
Court: Connecticut Supreme Court
Date: Feb. 13
Attorneys: Steven D. Ecker; Charles L. Howard
Summary: A regional water agency is challenging the $2.9 million verdict awarded to a woman who was injured while biking at a West Hartford reservoir. The agency claims that governmental immunity should have protected it from such a claim.
Background: Maribeth Blonski, of Rocky Hill, the former host of a public access television program about mountain biking, was out for a ride at the Talcott Mountain Recreation Area in May 2002.
The 3,000 acres belong to the Metropolitan District Commission, which oversees the Hartford region’s water supply, and the property includes several reservoirs and filtration plants. There are also biking and hiking trails, some paved and some not.
The MDC put up gates at various spots during the 1970s to guard against water contamination and vandalism. The gates consist of two posts about 15 feet apart with a large yellow pipe extending between them. When closed, the pipes extend across the roadway. Some of the gates were re-opened in the 1980s but were again closed for security purposes after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Even though the agency closed the gates, it did not provide any warning signs to bikers. In some instances, the agency left the white paint markings for the bike lanes, which lead right up to the closed gates.
Blonski and a friend were riding on such a path. As Blonski accelerated down a steep hill at between 20 and 30 mph, she noticed a gate and thought it was too late to stop.
She tried to duck under the gate but didn’t get low enough. Her head smashed into the pipe, denting her helmet and knocking her out for a few seconds. She suffered spinal fractures resulting in a permanent neck injury. If it wasn’t for Blonski’s high level of fitness, her lawyers believe that Blonski, a longtime soccer player as well as an avid biker, would have been rendered a quadriplegic.
Her trial lawyer, Michael Stratton, filed a negligence lawsuit against the MDC for not alerting bikers to the presence of the gate. Following a trial in May 2010, a jury awarded Blonski $2.9 million, even though it found her 30 percent at fault.
The MDC challenged the verdict, first with a post-trial motion that was denied. The MDC then filed an appeal, which the state Supreme Court agreed to hear.
The MDC argues that it is entitled to governmental immunity. Public agencies cannot be held liable for negligence for acts that are discretionary in nature. Installing gates and not putting up signs to warn riders were discretionary acts, the MDC argued.
However, there are exceptions to the immunity rule. One of them is that a governmental entity is liable for negligent acts that are committed in performing functions from which it derives a monetary benefit.
The MDC contends that, in this case, immunity applied because the alleged negligence had nothing to do with its propietary function of selling water to the public. Instead, it said, the bike trails are part of its secondary, non-financial function of providing for the free recreational use of its property.
"Where a water utility does not charge any fee for the recreational use of its properties, claims of negligence relating to that recreational use are not ‘inextricably linked’ or ‘inherently closely connected’ to a proprietary function as a matter of law," Sheila A. Huddleston, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney representing the MDC, argued in her Supreme Court brief. (Huddleston was recently nominated to become a Superior Court judge, and so oral arguments in the case will be handled by Shipman partner Charles L. Howard.)
In her briefs, Huddleston further argues that the MDC was immune from liability under the Recreational Land Use Act, which grants immunity to private landowners that permit the public to use their property for recreational purposes without charge.
Huddleston acknowledges that it would be the first time the Supreme Court has considered the application of the act to a governmental entity. "Because a private person in these circumstances would be immune from liability for negligent conduct under the recreational use statute, the MDC should be similarly immune," writes Huddleston.
Steven D. Ecker, of Cowdery, Ecker & Murphy, who is handling the appeal for Blonski, argues that the trial court judge was right to deny the MDC’s motions to set aside the verdict. He argued in his Supreme Court brief that because the gates were installed to guard the water supply, "it is indisputable that the specific conduct that caused Ms. Blonski’s injuries had been performed as an integral part of the MDC’s proprietary function."
Ecker continued: "Ms. Blonski was not injured by a fellow bicyclist traveling recklessly along the MDC’s roadway, or by a low-hanging banner announcing a weekend bike race…
"Rather, the plaintiff was injured because the MDC had carelessly decided to safeguard its water supply against terrorist access by placing an inconspicuous three-inch diameter pipe gate at neck height across a pathway that MDC knew was traveled by bicyclists. This act was negligent…," concluded Ecker.
Ecker also refutes the defense’s attempt to apply the Recreational Land Use Act. "When the legislature wants governmental entities protected by the same immunity as private persons, it says so," said Ecker.•