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Immunity for N.H. Public Entities Does Not Extend to Motor Vehicles

by | Apr 26, 2013 | PERSONAL INJURY, Sovereign Immunity |

New Hampshire public entities, such as towns, cities, counties and school disctricts, are protected by various statutory immunities that limit when they can be sued for injuring someone.  There are exceptions to these immunity statutes.  RSA 507-B:2 allows claims against municipal entities for harms arising from the operation of “all motor vehicles”.  The municipal entity must be at fault for the operation of the vehicle or “by fault attributable to” the municipal entity.  New Hampshire public entities like to claim that the RSA 507-B:2 exception to immunity is limited to motor vehicles owned and operated by the public entity.  This narrow reading of the statute, however, unfairly attempts to avoid claims which are allowed by the law.

In the case of Chatman v. Strafford County, 163 N.H. 320 (2012), the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that RSA 507-B:2 permitted recovery against a county for negligently supervising the loading of a trailer.  The trailer and vehicle it was being attached to were not owned by the county.  The victim claimed that a county supervisor was negligent in directing the work, resulting in serious injuries.  The trial court dismissed the case based on the assumption that the harm did not fall under RSA 507-B:2.  The New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed and specifically stated:  “we hold that the plaintiff’s claims ‘arise out of the County’s … operation of a motor vehicle’”.  Chatman, 163 N.H. at 326.  While the court did not specifically address the importance of the fact that the vehicle at issue was not owned by the county, it implied that liability is proper under RSA 507-B:2 when the a government entity does not own the vehicle in question but does have control over it.

Given the context of the Chatman decision, liability for negligently entrusting an automobile under the control of a government/public entity along with other negligent acts might be the basis for a legal claim under RSA 507-B:2 even when the public entity does not own or operate the vehicle.