Immunity protects towns from liability in lawsuit

By BEA LEWIS | May 02, 2014

Laconia — A judge has denied a request to reconsider his ruling dismissing a lawsuit brought by a woman who was injured when her leg broke through a rotted board on a footbridge linking the Town of Tilton to a public park.

Joanelle Wilcox, who now lives in Woonsocket, R.I., filed suit in June 2013 claiming that the towns of Tilton and Northfield, who jointly own Island Park and the footbridge needed to reach it, were negligent in maintaining the span.

The injured woman charged that both towns were aware of the defect prior to the incident and had begun to make repairs, but failed to warn pedestrians of the danger. The suit further alleged that the towns failed to order the bridge closed or properly inspect and repair the rotted sections, even after being advised that it needed to be replaced.

In January, Judge James D. O'Neill III rejected the plaintiff's claims of gross negligence, finding that both towns were immune from a personal injury claim under a law that says a landowner owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for outdoor recreational activities or to give any warning of hazardous conditions, unless the actions are found to be willful or malicious.

Earlier this month, O'Neill declined to reconsider his prior ruling finding that Wilcox had not provided sufficient points of law or facts that the court either overlooked or had misapplied.

In objecting to the motion to reconsider, the defendants had argued that the plaintiff's burden was to prove intentional conduct to avoid the immunity provisions of the law.

While Wilcox's lawyer had argued that O'Neill's granting of summary judgment to the defendants had the effect of granting blanket immunity to all streets, sidewalks and bridges, the Town of Tilton asserted that the ruling provided immunity because the property was made available, free of charge, and for recreational use, and that Wilcox was using it for that purpose at the time of the mishap.

Even with notice of an alleged defect, the immunity statute still applies.

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