Harry Stoller & Co. v. City of Lowell

587 N.E.2d 780 (1992)

Quick Summary

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Harry Stoller & Co. (plaintiff) owned buildings that were destroyed in a fire due to City of Lowell (defendant) firefighters’ alleged negligence. The firefighters did not use the buildings’ sprinkler systems, contrary to standard firefighting practice.

The issue before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was whether this action was protected by discretionary function immunity. The court concluded it was not, as it did not involve policy-making or planning decisions.

The initial verdict in favor of Stoller was reinstated, awarding damages of $100,000, as the firefighters’ decision was deemed operational and not protected by immunity.

Facts of the Case

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Harry Stoller & Co. (plaintiff) was the owner of several contiguous buildings equipped with a sprinkler system. A fire broke out and City of Lowell (defendant) firefighters were tasked with extinguishing the flames. Contrary to standard procedure, the firefighters chose not to utilize the buildings’ sprinkler system, opting instead for their own hoses.

This decision led to the destruction of Stoller’s properties. Stoller alleged that this choice constituted negligence on the part of the firefighters, as it deviated from accepted firefighting practice. The sprinkler systems had been tested and functioned properly just two days prior to the fire.

During the fire, the water pressure to the sprinklers was not maintained, which was contrary to firefighting best practices for high-rise building fires, potentially resulting in the fire’s spread.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. A jury found in favor of Harry Stoller & Co., awarding $850,000 in damages, later reduced to $100,000 due to statutory limitations.
  2. The City of Lowell moved for a directed verdict which was denied.
  3. Post-trial, the City of Lowell successfully obtained a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, claiming immunity based on a discretionary function exception.
  4. Stoller appealed against this judgment to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the City of Lowell is immune from liability under the discretionary function exception for the alleged negligent actions of its firefighters during a fire.

Rule of Law

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The discretionary function exception provides immunity for government entities only when their actions involve policy making or planning, rather than operational decisions not founded on such considerations.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The court examined whether the firefighters’ decision not to use the sprinkler system was a discretionary act protected by immunity. It distinguished between acts of discretion tied to policy and planning (which are immune) and those that are operational and do not involve policy-making (which are not).

The court held that the act of choosing not to use the sprinkler system did not involve policy or planning considerations but was rather an operational decision, thus not protected by the discretionary function exception.

The court further elaborated that almost all actions involve some level of discretion, but immunity is reserved for those decisions that are based on considerations of public policy.

In this case, the jury found that the firefighters’ actions were negligent and deviated from standard practice, which does not warrant immunity under the discretionary function exception.


Conclusion Icon

The judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the City of Lowell was vacated, and a new judgment was ordered in favor of Harry Stoller & Co. in the amount of $100,000.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Governmental entities are only immune from liability when their discretionary actions are based on policy making or planning considerations.
  2. Negligent actions by government employees that are operational in nature and do not involve policy decisions are not protected by discretionary function immunity.
  3. The court reversed a judgment notwithstanding the verdict that had favored the City of Lowell, reinstating the jury’s verdict for Harry Stoller & Co.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What distinguishes a discretionary act from an operational act in the context of governmental immunity?

A discretionary act involves judgment, choice, and policy considerations, granting immunity to governmental entities. In contrast, an operational act is a routine decision without policy implications, subjecting the entity to liability.

  • For example: If a city planning department decides to allocate funds for road maintenance based on policy priorities, that’s a discretionary act. However, once funds are allocated, failing to properly carry out the road repairs is an operational act that could lead to liability.

How can the intention behind governmental policy decisions impact the application of liability for negligence?

The intent behind policy decisions determines immunity; if actions serve broader policy objectives, they may be immune from liability. In contrast, actions lacking such purpose may be deemed negligent if they harm others.

  • For example: When a city decides not to build flood defenses due to budget constraints and a long-term risk assessment – even if floods occur and damage property – this policy-driven decision might impart immunity. Conversely, negligent execution of an established emergency response plan could subject the city to liability.

In what scenarios could a firefighter's decision-making process during an emergency open up the possibility of governmental liability?

A firefighter’s decision during an emergency could lead to governmental liability when it reflects a departure from established operational procedures without any policy or planning rationale.

  • For example: If firefighters intentionally ignore a working fire alarm system without any justifiable reason tied to safety or strategy and solely based on an erroneous judgment call, and it results in exacerbated property damage, their action may not be protected by discretionary function immunity – potentially leading to government liability.


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