It is well known that, before a municipality may be sued for a tort such as negligence, claimants must “present” their claims to the appropriate public officer within two years of the alleged injury. M.G.L. c.258, §4. But section 4 does not define the term, which inevitably leads to the question: What constitutes presentment?
In a recent case decided by the Supreme Judicial Court, Drake v. Town of Leicester, the claimant was injured on school property on January 19, 2016. She mailed her letter notifying the Town of her claim for damages on January 19, 2018. It was received on January 22, 2018. The claimant sought a ruling that the postmarked date of her presentment letter satisfied the statute. The SJC disagreed and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that the letter was not filed within the two-year deadline.
After noting that the term is not defined in the statute, the Court concluded that the “ordinary” definition of presentment is placement of an item before a person so that the person has the opportunity to observe the item. The Court noted that this definition fulfills the statute’s purposes of permitting potential recovery against governmental entities while providing a mechanism to ensure that such entities are exposed to only valid and reasonable claims. The Court thus concluded that merely mailing the notice is not the equivalent of providing the proper officer with the opportunity to observe it.
The principal takeaway from this decision is that claimants must be mindful of the strict rules of presentment, and municipalities should be alert to a potential basis for dismissal at the beginning of a lawsuit.