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Peters v. City of Westbrook
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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT					Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	2001 ME 179
Docket: 	Cum-01-337
Argued:  	October 10, 2001
Decided:	December 27, 2001




	[¶1]  Nancy Peters,{1} the personal representative of the estate of
Michael Peters, appeals from the summary judgment entered in the
Superior Court (Cumberland County, Warren, J.) in favor of the City of
Westbrook and its paramedic supervisor, Linda Roberts, in Peters' wrongful
death action.  Because Peters failed to demonstrate good cause for her
failure to file a timely notice of claim on the City and Roberts pursuant to the
requirements of the Maine Tort Claims Act, 14 M.R.S.A. § 8107(1) (Supp.
2001), we affirm the judgment.
	[¶2]  This case arose from the sudden and unfortunate death of
Michael Peters, the husband of Nancy Peters.  On March 18, 1998, he
suffered a heart attack while playing in a pick-up basketball game at
Westbrook Middle School.  A City of Westbrook ambulance crew led by
Roberts arrived with a defibrillator.  Some eyewitnesses recalled hearing
ambulance personnel saying that the paddles would not work.  The
ambulance transported Michael Peters to Maine Medical Center where he
was pronounced dead. 
	[¶3]  Shortly thereafter, witnesses told James Garland, a Westbrook
City Councillor and friend of Peters, about the malfunctioning defibrillator. 
Garland asked the chief of Westbrook's Fire and Emergency Services about
it, and the chief told Garland that the defibrillator paddles would not work
due to perspiration on Michael Peters' body.  Garland did not relate this
information to Nancy Peters.  She did not learn about the defibrillator
malfunction until November 1999, when she was told by her minor
daughter, who had learned about it from a classmate on March 18, 1999. 
	[¶4]  Nancy Peters sent a notice of claim to the City on February 14,
2000, twenty-three months after the death of Michael Peters.  She filed this
action a month later.  Roberts' and the City's motion for a summary
judgment was granted.
	[¶5]  Pursuant to the Maine Tort Claims Act, 14 M.R.S.A. § 8103
(1980), governmental entities are immune from suit unless their actions fit
within one of the exceptions to immunity.  Plaintiffs who seek to hold a
governmental unit and employee liable must first meet a procedural
requirement of notifying the unit of the intention to bring a claim.  Section
8107(1) of the Tort Claims Act, as applied to this case, required Nancy
Peters to file a written notice with the City of Westbrook within 180 days
after the claim accrued.  She concedes that her notice was not filed within
the time limit, but she relies on the "good cause" exception of 14 M.R.S.A.
§ 8107(1).  A claimant may escape the 180-day notice requirement if the
claimant has "good cause why notice could not have reasonably been filed
within the 180-day limit."  14 M.R.S.A. § 8107(1).
	[¶6]  "We have interpreted 'good cause' to require a showing that the
plaintiff was unable to file a claim or was meaningfully prevented from
learning of the information forming the basis for his or her complaint." 
Beaucage v. City of Rockland, 2000 ME 184, ¶ 6, 760 A.2d 1054, 1056.  The
good cause exception is interpreted narrowly since the Maine Tort Claims
Act is a "limited relaxation" of common-law sovereign immunity.  Smith v.
Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 58, 582 A.2d 247, 249 (Me. 1990).  
	[¶7]  Nancy Peters argues three reasons for her failure to meet the
180-day notice requirement and contends that these three reasons amount
to good cause.  First, she stated in her statement of material facts that she
has suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1996.  She did not, however,
present any facts as to how her condition kept her from meeting the notice
requirement in a timely fashion.  It is apparent that once her daughter told
her about the defibrillator malfunction in November 1999, Nancy Peters was
able to take action to file the notice in February 2000.  Neither her
statement of material facts nor her supporting affidavit alleged that her
medical condition prevented her from filing the notice or learning the facts
surrounding her husband's death.  The fact that she suffers from multiple
sclerosis, does not, in and of itself, meet the good cause exception.
	[¶8]  The second basis for Nancy Peters' good cause claim is that she
was unaware of the facts that form the basis for the City and Roberts'
potential liability.  She first learned about the defibrillator malfunction from
her daughter and a month later spoke to Garland and a man who was
present when Michael Peters collapsed and who witnessed the use of the
defibrillator.  They confirmed that the defibrillator failed or was used
improperly.  They had not told Nancy Peters this information earlier because
they assumed she knew.  The reasonable inference from this is that Nancy
Peters would have learned this information from Garland and the other
witness well within the 180-day limit if she had taken steps to do so.  The
fact that witnesses do not voluntarily come forward does not constitute good
cause.  Porter v. Philbrick-Gates, 2000 ME 35, ¶ 11, 745 A.2d 996, 999;
Gardner v. City of Biddeford, 565 A.2d 329, 330 (Me. 1989).  "The difficulty
in learning the facts underlying a claim is not enough for a plaintiff to meet
its burden of showing good cause."  Beaucage, 2000 ME 184, ¶ 6, 760 A.2d
at 1056-57.  "[P]laintiffs are expected to endeavor to obtain information on
their own if help is not forthcoming."  Porter, 2000 ME 35, ¶ 11, 745 A.2d
at 999.  Only when a plaintiff is truly prevented from obtaining the
information can good cause be established, as in Beaucage, where the
plaintiff offered evidence that police and prosecutors withheld crucial
information.  2000 ME 184, ¶¶ 4, 7, 760 A.2d at 1056, 1057.  Nancy Peters
was not prevented from learning the facts about the use of the defibrillator.
	[¶9]  The third basis given by Nancy Peters as good cause for the late
filing is that even if she had sought information about her husband's death,
that information would have been misleading.  She argues that when Garland
talked to the chief of Westbrook's Emergency Services, the chief gave
Garland misleading information, that is, that the defibrillator paddles would
not work because of perspiration.  Even assuming that this information was
misleading, it was not communicated to Peters until shortly before she filed
the notice of claim and she has not shown how the information is related to
her untimeliness.  Because she had no knowledge of the information, it
could not have prevented her from filing the claim.    
	[¶10]  The wrongful death claim is barred by 14 M.R.S.A. § 8107(4)
(1980) as Nancy Peters has not demonstrated good cause for her failure to
meet the 180-day notice requirement of section 8107(1).  Therefore, we do
not reach the parties' arguments on whether the defibrillator comes within
the definition of "other machinery or equipment" in 14 M.R.S.A.
§ 8104-A(1)(G) (Supp. 2001).
	The entry is:
			Judgment affirmed.
Attorney for plaintiff: John P. Flynn III , Esq. (orally) Troubh, Heisler & Piampiano, P.A. P O Box 9711 Portland, ME 04104-5011 Attorneys for defendants: Paul C. Catsos, Esq. (orally) Elizabeth Knox Peck, Esq. Thompson & Bowie P O Box 4630 Portland, ME 04112
FOOTNOTES******************************** {1} . The two minor children of Michael Peters were named as plaintiffs. Because the only claim in the complaint is a wrongful death claim, Nancy Peters, as the personal representative of the decedent's estate, was the only proper plaintiff. 18-A M.R.S.A. § 2-804(b) (Supp. 2001).