Supreme Judicial Court Finds That Police Officer Who Injured Coworker on Town Property During Working Hours Was Not Acting Within Scope of Employment

On October 25, 2021, the Supreme Judicial Court held in Russell Berry v. Commerce Insurance Company, (No. 2020-P-1316) that the provision of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G.L. c. 258, §2 (the “Act”) which provides civil tort immunity to any public employee acting “within the scope of his office or employment” did not apply to a Raynham police officer who struck a fellow officer with his truck on town property while returning from a paid lunch.

The incident in question occurred at a firing range owned by the Town of Raynham.  Officer Shawn Sheehan was an employee of the Raynham Police Department and a certified firearms instructor who was being paid overtime to conduct a day-long training for fellow officers. The plaintiff, Officer Russell Berry, was also an employee of the Raynham Police Department who was required to attend the training. Following the morning session, Officer Sheehan left the range to buy lunch at a nearby store. During this lunch break, Officer Sheehan was still being paid and was planning to eat during a “working lunch” with fellow officers. When he returned, Officer Sheehan drove his pickup truck directly onto the range, intending to park near a group of picnic tables. Driving “faster than he should have,” Officer Sheehan applied the brakes, and the truck slid and struck Officer Berry, pinning his leg between the truck and a picnic table.

Officer Berry sustained several injuries to his leg and incurred medical bills in excess of $130,000. As a result of his injuries, Officer Berry received leave with pay under G.L. c. 41, § 111F, which applies to police and firefighters injured “in the performance of [their] duty.” However, when Officer Berry submitted a written demand letter to Officer Sheehan’s insurer, it denied coverage on the ground that Officer Sheehan was a public employee who had been acting within the scope of his employment and, thus, was immune under G.L. c. 258, §2. Officer Berry then sued in Superior Court and the judge entered a declaratory judgment in his favor.

After the Commerce Insurance Company appealed, the SJC, exercising direct appeal, affirmed the decision of the Superior Court. The Court explained that three factors must be considered when determining whether an employee’s conduct falls within the scope of employment: (1) “whether the conduct in question is of the kind the employee is hired to perform”; (2) “whether it occurs within authorized time and space limits”;  and (3) “whether it is motivated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer.” The SJC concluded that Officer Sheehan was not acting within the scope of employment at the time of the accident because his conduct – driving his truck too fast on the range, braking suddenly, and causing his truck to slide into Officer Berry – was not part of the duties that he was hired to perform as a firearms instructor. The Court added that Officer Sheehan’s actions were not motivated, even in part, by a purpose to serve the Raynham Police Department.

The SJC reconciled this analysis with the fact that Officer Berry was injured “in the performance of his duty” and qualified for paid leave under G.L. c. 41, § 111F. The Court explained that the standard used in cases involving an injured employee’s entitlement to benefits is much broader than the “scope of employment” test used to determine whether an employer is liable for the employee’s negligent acts, pointing out that the statutes have different purposes justifying different treatments.

This case is important to municipal employers because it may limit employer liability for tortious acts committed by an employee in some circumstances even when the conduct occurred on employer property during working hours and qualified the other, injured employee for § 111F leave. As always, the specific facts will determine the relevance of this decision in a given case.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding employer liability, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.