City Loses Landmark ‘Slip and Fall’ Decision; May Face Trial

Attorney John A. Finbury of Haverhill successfully argues for his client before the state's highest court.

Photo: Attorney John A. Finbury of Haverhill successfully argues for his client before the state's highest court.

EXCLUSIVE: A Haverhill woman, who won a landmark slip and fall court decision, may be entitled to receive a damage award from the city of Haverhill. The city, however, has not entered into settlement talks and may face another trial.

Michelle M. Wilkins slipped and fell on ice at John Greenleaf Whittier School while on her way to a parent-teacher conference Feb. 10, 2011. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court reversed a lower court ruling in May that rejected her request for money. In a precedent-setting decision, justices carved out an exception to state law, saying communities are liable when certain events are not actually open to the public.

“The city is pushing back. My intention going into this was never money. It was principle and principle only. No money in the world is going to fix the medical issues I now have that are permanent,” Wilkins said in an exclusive telephone interview with WHAV Sunday. She said, however, now she needs the city’s payment since she has not been able to work at her job as front-end supervisor at Marshalls in Haverhill. Wilkins said she is unable to use her right hand and suffers from frozen shoulder and chronic pain disorder. Attorney John A. Finbury, representing Wilkins, told justices security at the conference proved it was not a public event.

“The vice principal and the principal were standing at the front door as my client, Miss Wilkins, was coming in. They’re there for two reasons—one, of course, to greet, but also as gatekeepers. And it’s well known that public schools, especially in this day and age, are very secure facilities,” Finbury argued.

Essex County Superior Court originally allowed a city motion to deny Wilkins’ claims, citing a law that prevents negligence payments when land is open to the public at no charge for educational and other purposes.

Attorney John J. Davis of Pierce, Davis & Perritano of Boston represented the city of Haverhill. Davis argued that even though the school was not open to the general public, parent-teacher conferences are still open to a part of the community and, therefore, the public use requirement applies. He told WHAV Sunday by email, “The SJC returned the case to Superior Court for further proceedings and, if necessary, a trial.” It was not known at deadline how much the city has spent on outside counsel or how much more it will spend if another trial takes place.

“Because we conclude that the limitation on liability provided (by law), extends solely to land open to the general public, and during the relevant time the school was open only to a discrete group and not to the general public, we reverse,” the SJC ruled. Justices said the city’s argument would result in ending a land owner’s ”common-law duty of reasonable care to all persons lawfully on the premises.”

Attorney John J. Davis, left, made the city's case while Attorney John A. Finbury, representing Michelle Wilkins, sits at right.

Attorney John J. Davis. left, made the city's case while Attorney John A. Finbury, representing Michelle Wilkins, sits at right.