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Martinez v. City of New Haven

Supreme Court of Connecticut

January 30, 2018

ANTHONY MARTINEZ ET AL.
v.
CITY OF NEW HAVEN ET AL.

          Argued September 21, 2017

          Audrey C. Kramer, assistant corporation counsel, for the appellants-cross appellees (named defendant et al.).

          Terrence M. Wynne, for the appellees-cross appellants (plaintiffs).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, McDonald, Robinson, D'Auria and Espinosa, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          ROBINSON, J.

         The principal issue in this appeal is whether the trial court properly determined that the named plaintiff, Anthony Martinez, [1] proved the imminent harm to identifiable persons exception to the defense of governmental immunity with respect to facial injuries that he sustained when other students engaged in horseplay by running with a pair of safety scissors in the auditorium of his school. The plaintiff commenced this action against the defendants, the city of New Haven (city), the Board of Education of the City of New Haven (board), and Garth Harries, the Superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, [2] seeking damages for, inter alia, their negligent supervision of students pursuant to General Statutes § 52-557n (a).[3]On appeal, [4] the defendants claim, inter alia, that the trial court improperly held that the plaintiff satisfied the imminent harm to identifiable persons exception to governmental immunity, which this court recently clarified in Haynes v. Middletown, 314 Conn. 303, 101 A.3d 249 (2014). The plaintiff disagrees, and also claims, as an alternative ground for affirming the judgment of the trial court, that the defendants failed to plead governmental immunity as a special defense in the operative answer. We conclude that the plaintiff has failed to prove that the defendants' conduct had subjected an identifiable person to imminent harm. We also conclude that the trial court implicitly granted the defendants' request to amend their answer to plead governmental immunity as a special defense. Accordingly, we reverse in part the judgment of the trial court.

         The record reveals the following facts, as found by the trial court, and procedural history relevant to our resolution of this appeal. On March 19, 2013, the plaintiff, who was eleven years old, attended the Engineering Science University Magnet School (school) in New Haven. Upon his arrival at the school that day, the plaintiff went to the auditorium to eat breakfast and wait for classes to start. At that time, a teacher, David Scott Stewart, was present in the auditorium because the principal had assigned him to supervise student behavior. There were between seventy and seventy-five students in the auditorium that morning. While there, the plaintiff observed two female students running around the auditorium chasing after one of the plaintiff's friends. Stewart did not see the students running because he was talking to other students at the time. One of the female students had safety scissors in her hand as she ran. As that female student approached the plaintiff, the scissors fell to the ground. The plaintiff and the other female student bent down to retrieve the scissors and, as that female student lifted the open scissors from the ground, she accidentally cut the plaintiff on the left side of his face.

         The plaintiff's laceration began to bleed, so he went to the bathroom with his friend to tend to the injury. Other students advised another teacher, Karissa Stolzman, of the incident. Stolzman went to the bathroom and gave the plaintiff paper towels to care for the cut and then took him to the main office. Stolzman then reported the incident to the principal and filed an incident report. The school informed the plaintiff's parents of the incident and called an ambulance to transport him to a hospital emergency room for treatment.

         The plaintiff subsequently commenced this action against the defendants, seeking monetary damages for his injuries. In the operative complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants had failed to supervise the students in the auditorium properly. The plaintiff further alleged that the defendants failed to inspect the premises properly to ascertain the presence of dangerous objects, and, as such, they failed to remove the dangerous object that caused his injuries. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendants and their agents, servants or employees were negligent, and that the action was being brought pursuant to § 52-557n. The defendants filed their first answer on July 29, 2015, which denied the plaintiff's allegations of negligence. On September 11, 2015, the defendants filed a request for leave to amend their answer to include, inter alia, the special defense of governmental immunity. The trial court never explicitly ruled on that motion for leave to amend the answer.

         The matter was tried to the court, which found in favor of the plaintiff on counts one and two of the complaint. Specifically, the trial court concluded that the plaintiff satisfied the imminent harm to identifiable persons exception to governmental immunity under the standard articulated in Haynes v. Middletown, supra, 314 Conn. 303. The trial court rendered judgment on counts one and two of the complaint awarding the plaintiff past economic damages of $2814.19, future economic damages of $3000, and noneconomic damages of $35, 000. The trial court rendered judgment against the plaintiff on the remaining three counts of the complaint. See footnote 5 of this opinion. This appeal followed. See footnote 6 of this opinion.

         On appeal, the defendants claim, inter alia, that the trial court improperly concluded that the plaintiff was an identifiable person subject to imminent harm. The plaintiff disagrees and also posits, as an alternative ground for affirmance, that the defendants failed to plead the special defense of governmental immunity in the operative answer.[5] We address these issues in turn.

         I

         We first address the question of whether the trial court properly determined that the plaintiff met his burden of proving the imminent harm to identifiable persons exception to governmental immunity. Specifically, the defendants contend that, because the trial court did not identify how the harm was imminent, the plaintiff could not be found to be an identifiable person. Additionally, the defendants argue that the trial court did not identify the dangerous condition or explain how that dangerous condition was apparent to Stewart. Finally, the defendants contend that the trial court's reliance on whether the harm was foreseeable is improper because this court rejected that standard in Haynes v. Middletown, supra, 314 Conn. 303.[6]

         In response, the plaintiff contends that the trial court properly concluded that he was a member of an identifiable class of victims as a student at school during school hours. Moreover, the plaintiff further contends that the dangerous condition was students running with scissors and that it was, or should have been, apparent to Stewart that the plaintiff was in danger of imminent harm. To this end, the plaintiff argues that Haynes did not reject the foreseeability standard; rather, it rejected the notion that foreseeability was limited only to temporal and geographical considerations.

         Our analysis begins with a review of the law concerning governmental immunity, including the imminent harm to identifiable persons exception. ‘‘[Section] 52-557n abandons the common-law principle of municipal sovereign immunity and establishes the circumstances in which a municipality may be liable for damages. . . . One such circumstance is a negligent act or omission of a municipal officer acting within the scope of his or her employment or official duties. . . . [Section] 52-557n (a) (2) (B), however, explicitly shields a municipality from liability for damages to person or property caused by the negligent acts or omissions which require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law.'' (Citation omitted; footnote omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Edgerton v. Clinton, 311 Conn. 217, 229, 86 A.3d 437 (2014).

         ‘‘This court has recognized an exception to discretionary act immunity that allows for liability when the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm . . . . This identifiable person-imminent harm exception has three requirements: (1) an imminent harm; (2) an identifiable victim; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to that harm. . . . All three must be proven in order for the exception to apply.'' (Citations omitted; footnote omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 230-31. ‘‘[T]he ultimate determination of whether [governmental] immunity applies is ordinarily a question of ...


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