Summary Judgment Granted in “Lobstergate” Case

Attorney Courtney Mayo successfully obtained summary judgment on behalf of municipal defendants in a protracted action involving a tractor trailer accident, the spillage of seafood cargo onto the roadway, the conversion of condemned seafood by a local restaurant owner, and claims of civil rights violations.

The action arose from an accident occurring in 2008 on Route 395 in Massachusetts when a tractor trailer, carrying a load of fresh fish and live lobsters, struck three other vehicles and a rock outcropping.  The accident caused the trailer to open up and the seafood to spill onto the roadway.  Following the accident and during an attempt by the truck’s driver to salvage the seafood cargo, the Town’s Board of Health Agent, appeared at the scene.  The agent, seeing the damaged trailer, the fuel spilled onto the roadway in close proximity to the cargo, and the compromised freezer or “reefer” unit of the truck in the summer heat, determined that the load of seafood should be condemned as unfit for human consumption.  Despite condemning the seafood, the responding tow truck driver and a local restaurant owner ultimately decided to take the seafood for use at the owner’s restaurant and to sell to other local establishments.

The trucking company and transportation broker filed an action against the Town, Board of Health, Police Chief and Health Agent, alleging that the Health Agent had violated the plaintiffs’ civil rights when he condemned the seafood cargo, that the Health Agent’s actions caused the plaintiffs to lose the value of the cargo and, finally, that the Town and/or Police Department should have warned the public that a local road race could have caused a traffic backup.  The municipal defendants filed a Third-Party Complaint against the tow truck driver and restaurant owner, alleging improper conversion of the seafood.  The Third-Party Defendants then asserted counterclaims sounding in negligence against the Town’s Health Department and civil rights violations against the Health Agent, all of which were the subject of a successful Motion to Dismiss filed and argued by Attorney Mayo.  Moreover, Attorney Mayo successfully argued that the plaintiff trucking company and transportation broker did not own the seafood cargo in dispute and, therefore, did not have standing to bring an action for the loss of the cargo.

As to the remaining counts, Attorney Mayo filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the municipal defendants, stating that there could be no claim against the municipality or its employees because any alleged inadequate or negligent inspection of the seafood cargo by the Health Inspector was protected as immune from liability because the property contained a hazard to health or safety pursuant to G.L.c. 258 s. 10(f) and that the condemnation of the seafood cargo was a discretionary function for which the Health Agent and Town were immune in accordance with G.L.c. 258.  Further, Attorney Mayo also contended that there was no evidence to suggest that the Town was responsible for, or should have warned the public about, a potential back up or slowdown of traffic as the Town was not the original cause of the traffic backup or the motor vehicle accident pursuant to G.L.c. 258 s. 10(j).

In his fourteen (14) page decision, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman, ruled that the municipal defendants as public employers could not be held liable for failing to warn the public of any potential traffic back up and that plaintiff’s claims against the Town for improper supervision and training of the Health Agent must fail under M.G.L. c. 258 § 10(j).  Lastly, Judge Hillman found that the claims of civil rights violations made against the Health Agent must fail because the Health Agent is entitled to qualified immunity as his conduct in condemning a load of seafood cargo that had spilled on the roadway, near a fuel spill, for at least four (4) hours on a hot July morning, did not constitute behavior that would “shock the conscience” and, therefore, he was entitled to qualified immunity.

Judge Hillman granted the Motion for Summary Judgment in favor of the municipal defendants.