Firehouse Rented to Private Individuals a Proprietary Function

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July 26, 2009

In Mazurek v. Town of East Haven, 99 Conn. App. 795 (2007), the plaintiff was injured while departing from a birthday party held at the Foxon volunteer firehouse in East Haven in December 1997. The Foxon volunteer department leased its hall to private individuals to help defray the cost of maintaining the property. The defendant owned and had control over the property at the time of the injury. While departing, the plaintiff stepped out onto a platform that led to the parking lot. The plaintiff stepped off the platform, intending to step directly onto the pavement of the parking lot. In stepping, she didn't notice the stairs between the platform and the parking lot's surface. When her foot went farther down that she had anticipated, she began to fall. Although a bystander broke her fall, the plaintiff claimed that she injured her ankle during the incident.

Connecticut's law of governmental immunity was reviewed by the Supreme Court in Considine v. Waterbury, 279 Conn. 830 (2006). The exceptions to the modern law of governmental immunity are codified in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557n.[1] The first inquiry in determining whether the municipality is shielded from liability by the doctrine is whether the municipality was engaged in a propriety or government function. When the municipality is engaged in proprietary conduct, it is not clothed with the state's immunities and is liable to be sued for injuries inflicted through its negligence in the performance of such an act. Id. at 842.

In determining whether a municipality's activity was proprietary in nature, Connecticut courts, along with courts of other jurisdictions, have examined whether the activity generated a special corporate benefit or pecuniary profit inuring to the municipality. The Considine court noted: "In the specific context of leasing municipal property, this court and courts of other jurisdictions generally have concluded that a municipality acts in its proprietary capacity when it leases municipal property to private individuals. Considine, supra, at 849.

In Considine, the defendant city operated a municipal golf course. It rented a clubhouse located on the property to an entity operating a restaurant but retained responsibility for maintaining the common areas of the clubhouse that permitted public access to the clubhouse and restaurant. The city reinvested the restaurant's rent money into maintaining the golf course. The plaintiff was injured while waiting in the common area leading to the restaurant. While waiting for a friend, the plaintiff lost his balance and fell through a glass window panel, injuring himself. The Court held that governmental immunity did not attach because the city was conducting a proprietary and not a governmental function. The Court also reasoned that there was a pecuniary profit because the city reinvested the money it made from the premises back into the premises, defraying its cost of maintenance, thereby yielding the town a pecuniary benefit.[2]

A case approvingly cited by the Considine court when reviewing the distinction between proprietary and government functions, is the 1935 Massachusetts case of Wood v. Oxford, 290 Mass. 388, 195 N.E. 321 (1935). In Wood, the plaintiff alleged that she was injured when snow and ice, falling from the roof of the town hall from which she was exiting, struck her in the head. The defendant municipality rented the town hall to private individuals for moving pictures, private, commercial and other purposes, and the plaintiff was departing from one of those private gatherings at the time of the injury. The Wood court found that the town was not shielded by governmental immunity.

After reviewing the principles articulated in Considine, the Court in Mazurek, after finding that the defendant rented the property to private individuals in order to raise revenue to help defray the costs of maintaining the firehouse, held that the activity constituted a proprietary and not a governmental function, and thus the defendant was not shielded by the doctrine of governmental immunity.

[1] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557n(a)(1) provides in relevant part: "Except as otherwise provided by law, a political subdivision of the state shall be liable for damages to person or property caused by ... (B) negligence in the performance of functions from which the political subdivision derives a special corporate profit or pecuniary benefit.

[2] Considine v. Waterbury, 279 Conn. 830, 851 (2006).