State not immune from liability in Fort Constitution lawsuit

April 1, 2022 GMT

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday reversed a judge’s ruling that the state was immune from liability in a woman’s lawsuit alleging she was hurt by falling debris at Fort Constitution in 2018.

The woman was visiting the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, which is on federal land in New Castle. The land is adjacent to Fort Constitution, which is owned and operated by the state. The fort guarded access to the harbor at Portsmouth dating back to the 1600s.

While the woman was standing on the federal land near the outer wall of the fort, a portion of the wall fell on top of her, causing her injuries, the court said.

She sued the state for negligence. A judge granted the state’s motion for a dismissal under a law providing that an owner, occupant, or lessee of land “shall not be liable” for injury if they permit a person to use land without charge.

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The judge said because the state “held Fort Constitution out to the public at no charge” and the wall “was maintained as part of the historic site for the use and enjoyment of the public,” the state was shielded from immunity, regardless of whether the woman was on the state’s property when she was injured.

The supreme court disagreed with the state that nothing in the language of the statute “limits its applicability to on-premises injuries.” It said it’s undisputed that the woman didn’t use or enter the state’s land.