Photo: Attorney John J. Davis. left, made the city’s case while Attorney John A. Finbury, representing Michelle Wilkins, sits at right.
The most the city of Haverhill could be forced to pay in a slip and fall case is $100,000, according to a lawyer representing Michelle M. Wilkins.
Attorney John Finbury is representing Wilkins who fell on ice at John Greenleaf Whittier School while attending a parent-teacher conference Feb. 10, 2011. He said Monday state law caps damages against municipalities. The state’s highest court reversed a lower court dismissal of the case in May, carving out an exception to state law. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled communities, otherwise protected from liability, might have to pay slip and fall claims when events are not actually open to the public.
“It’s a case of first impression,” Finbury said. He explained all 50 states waive property owner liability when recreational events are free and open to the public. The ruling could cause other state courts to scrutinize those laws. Finbury argued successfully the Haverhill parent-teacher conference was not actually 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,” he told justices.
Finbury said he asked the city to settle with Wilkins rather than face another trial at Lawrence Superior Court. “They want to evaluate all of the medicals since 2011 and then revisit.”
“I never expect cases to be settled, but most cases do settle,” he said.
Attorney John J. Davis of Pierce, Davis & Perritano of Boston represented the city of Haverhill’s insurance company. 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.