A long dormant two million dollar suit against the University came to life again yesterday when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that 32-year-old Walter Grueninger, a former Medical School student, is entitled to a trial on his claim that negligence on the part of the University Health Services caused him to go blind.
Grueninger contracted an illness while a sophomore at the Medical School in 1958. His suit reportedly charges that proper diagnosis and treatment of the illness could have prevented his subsequent total blindness.
Yesterday's Supreme Court decision concerned the procedural aspects rather than the merits of the case. It overturned a lower court ruling which had held that the trial could not take place, in part because a charitable corporation cannot be sued in Massachusetts.
Grueninger's attorney, Edward M. Swartz of the law firm of Schneider, Reilly, and McCardle, had argued that the University was liable for the alleged negligence under a legal exception to the charitable immunity doctrine: that in this case Harvard was acting in a proprietary rather than charitable capacity by providing medical care for a fee under the terms of a pre-paid insurance plan.
The Supreme Court did not rule that Grueninger's suit came under this exception, only that whether or not the exception applies is a question that should be decided at the trial, not disposed of in preliminary hearings without permitting a trial.
"We are of the opinion that the allegations in the declaration ... were sufficient claim that the defendant's activities, which gave rise to this action, were primarily commercial in nature," Justice John V. Spalding '20 wrote for the Court.
Basis of Defense
"If the plaintiff can establish this at the trial, the defense of charitable immunity would fail," he added.
Yesterday's decision means that, barring an out-of-court settlement, the trial of Grueninger's suit should get under way within the next few months. The suit was originally filed in Suffolk Superior Court in the spring of 1960 and has been shrouded in secrecy for most of the time since, due to the impoundment by the Court of all the relevant papers.
In the new trial, the University will presumably contend that it was engaged in the furtherance of one of its charitable purposes in providing medical care for student Grueninger. It will probably also argue that there was in fact no negligence on its part.