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$________ GROSS REDUCED TO $________ IN ACCORDANCE WITH STATE TORT CLAIMS ACT. Wrongful Death - Government Liability - plaintiff injured when struck by flying hockey puck while walking along outside perimeter of allegedly unsafe skating rink - ruptured spleen requiring removal of organ and consequent increased susceptibility to infections - death caused by subsequent infection.


This was a death action brought by the estate of the male decedent, in his late teens at the time of the subject incident, who suffered a ruptured spleen when he was struck by a hockey puck propelled at a high velocity through the chainlink barrier surrounding the public skating rink where his amateur team was playing ice hockey. The plaintiff contended that the defendant State negligently failed to maintain the public rink in a safe condition and specifically failed to provide an adequate barrier surrounding the rink. The decedent was struck in the side, suffering a ruptured spleen which required surgical removal of the organ. The plaintiff contended that the decedent’s subsequent untimely death several months later was proximately caused by the subject injury, which left him at an increased risk for infection.

At the time of the subject accident, the decedent was a member of an informal hockey team which had rented the State’s hockey rink for the time period during which the accident occurred. The evidence adduced at trial indicated that the decedent was walking along the exterior of the rink while a hockey game was underway on the ice when he was struck in the side by a hockey puck. The puck had left a player’s hockey stick and exited the rink area through a hole in the chainlink barrier surrounding the rink. The decedent sustained a ruptured spleen and as a result, required removal of the organ.

The plaintiff, who did not offer expert testimony on the issue of liability, contended that the public skating rink was maintained in a dangerous condition in that it lacked a secure barrier to sufficiently safeguard those outside the rink. The plaintiff contended that the chainlink fence which served as the sole barrier surrounding the rink, was permitted to fall into disrepair by the defendant State. The plaintiff’s evidence demonstrated that the chain link fence was rusted and that large gaps or holes which had appeared in the chainlink barrier remained uncorrected for an inordinate length of time up until the day of the accident. The plaintiff contended that the holes which had formed were large enough so that the barrier no longer served to sufficiently safeguard against the escape of a hockey puck.

The plaintiff’s medical experts testified that the puck trauma necessitated removal of the decedent’s spleen and that the removal of the spleen, in turn, weakened the decedent’s immune system. The plaintiff’s medical expert’s related that in the decedent’s case, the spleen removal reduced his immune system’s ability to prevent a flu-like illness from escalating into a fatal pneumonia. With respect to damages, the plaintiff relied upon the testimony of the decedent’s parents. Each parent spent approximately fifteen minutes describing his and her relationship with the son.

The defendant disputed the plaintiff’s version of the facts and maintained that the injury was sustained while the decedent was inside the rink.

The defendant offered evidence indicating that the decedent continued to play hockey following the incident and that it was not until later that day that he reported to the hospital complaining of pain and discomfort, at which time the injury to the spleen was diagnosed.

The defendant further asserted governmental immunity, relying upon the theory that whenever the government performs a discretionary function, it stands insulated from liability. The defendant argued that the maintenance and repair of the chainlink barrier and the ice skating rink constituted a discretionary function. The defendant’s medical experts countered that the knowledge available to the medical community did not permit any physician to render an opinion causally relating the loss of the spleen to fatal pneumonia. In addition, the defendant contended that the decedent had been previously warned about the hazards of failing to seek immediate treatment for flu-like symptoms and that the decedent was comparatively negligent in failing to secure medical treatment within 36 hours of the onset of such symptoms. The jury returned a verdict of $________ which was reduced to $________ in accordance with the State Tort Claims Act.

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