Even though the agency closed the gates, it did not provide any warning signs to bikers. In some instances, the agency left the white paint markings for the bike lanes, which lead right up to the closed gates.
Blonski and a friend were riding on such a path. As Blonski accelerated down a steep hill at between 20 and 30 mph, she noticed a gate and thought it was too late to stop.
She tried to duck under the gate but didn't get low enough. Her head smashed into the pipe, denting her helmet and knocking her out for a few seconds. She suffered spinal fractures resulting in a permanent neck injury. If it wasn't for Blonski's high level of fitness, her lawyers believe that Blonski, a longtime soccer player as well as an avid biker, would have been rendered a quadriplegic.
Her trial lawyer, Michael Stratton, filed a negligence lawsuit against the MDC for not alerting bikers to the presence of the gate. Following a trial in May 2010, a jury awarded Blonski $2.9 million, even though it found her 30 percent at fault.
The MDC challenged the verdict, first with a post-trial motion that was denied. The MDC then filed an appeal, which the state Supreme Court agreed to hear.
The MDC argues that it is entitled to governmental immunity. Public agencies cannot be held liable for negligence for acts that are discretionary in nature. Installing gates and not putting up signs to warn riders were discretionary acts, the MDC argued.
However, there are exceptions to the immunity rule. One of them is that a governmental entity is liable for negligent acts that are committed in performing functions from which it derives a monetary benefit.
The MDC contends that, in this case, immunity applied because the alleged negligence had nothing to do with its propietary function of selling water to the public. Instead, it said, the bike trails are part of its secondary, non-financial function of providing for the free recreational use of its property.
"Where a water utility does not charge any fee for the recreational use of its properties, claims of negligence relating to that recreational use are not 'inextricably linked' or 'inherently closely connected' to a proprietary function as a matter of law," Sheila A. Huddleston, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney representing the MDC, argued in her Supreme Court brief. (Huddleston was recently nominated to become a Superior Court judge, and so oral arguments in the case will be handled by Shipman partner Charles L. Howard.)
In her briefs, Huddleston further argues that the MDC was immune from liability under the Recreational Land Use Act, which grants immunity to private landowners that permit the public to use their property for recreational purposes without charge.