The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a summary judgment in favor of a university and against a student who suffered an injury in a slip-and-fall accident on campus.
According to court records, the issue in this case was not the merits of the plaintiff’s case but instead whether she filed within the statutory 180-day filing period according to 14 M.R.S. § 8107, which details the notice that is required when a plaintiff plans to file a lawsuit against a governmental entity. Many colleges are considered governmental entities, and therefore, plaintiffs making injury claims against them must follow such provisions.
Per the facts viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff (as the one against whom the summary judgment was entered), the plaintiff suffered an injury when she slipped and fell on a patch of ice outside her dorm on the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine. This injury occurred in mid-January 2014. As a result of that fall, the plaintiff suffered a broken leg and torn ligaments and had to undergo surgery.
About two weeks later, her father e-mailed the university’s risk management office, letting them know about the incident and stating he hoped the school would assume some level of responsibility for what happened because the maintenance of walkways, stairs, and parking lots on campus was part of the school’s responsibility.
The school’s vice president of risk management responded to that email, expressing sympathy and asking that she file an incident report. He also asked whether she planned to file a claim. Her father responded indicating his daughter and he would not involve lawyers because they had faith the university would satisfy her medical expenses and other related costs. (Of course, this is exactly why he should have consulted a lawyer. A large entity is unlikely to give someone a fairer shake because they have promised not to “involve injury lawyers.” In fact, the opposite is usually true, as this case illustrates.)
The vice president did not respond to that email, nor did he acknowledge the school had received the incident report the student filed in mid-March. However, he did write back a few weeks later to say he was not ignoring the situation, and the two emailed back and forth for a time.
The claim was referred to the school’s insurance company. The adjuster conducted an investigation and told the student she “probably would not recover much” but would “probably recover something.”
Then, in mid-May, the insurance company denied the plaintiff’s claim. By that point, there were still 63 days remaining on the 180-day deadline notice.
However, the plaintiff did not file her lawsuit until 170 days after the claim had been formally denied. By that time, she was represented by an injury lawyer.
The school responded with several affirmative defenses and asked for summary judgment, asserting the plaintiff had not given timely notice of her intent to file a claim.
The trial court, finding the plaintiff failed to comply with statutory notice requirements and did not provide good cause as to why, agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed on appeal. The court noted that per its 1994 ruling in Smith v. Voisine, if a plaintiff can show good cause as to why they did not file notice within that 180-day window, they may have up to two years from the date the cause of action accrued in which to file their notice. However, that exception for good cause is interpreted very narrowly.
Here, the plaintiff would have had good cause while her father was communicating with university officials. However, that good cause disappeared when the claim was denied.
If you are a victim of a Bangor accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-490-5218 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Diviney v. University of Maine System, March 28, 2017, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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