A Hingham man and his Cohasset lawyer are fighting the town of Hingham in a class action lawsuit filed in both the state and federal courts, arguing that the municipality illegally ticketed drivers by arbitrarily setting unreasonably low speed limits.
“It’s quintessential Hingham,” said lawyer Frederic P. Zotos, who had fought his own unsuccessful speed-limit battle with the town before taking on the case of Nicholas Belezos.
Belezos, of Hingham, was ticketed on his 21st birthday in September 2011. He went to a hearing and paid $125 in fines and fees, but later learned he was no longer able to make deliveries for his family’s business because he was dropped by the company’s insurer, according to Zotos.
Zotos says that state statutes lay out guidelines and procedures that municipalities need to follow in order to set speed limits and that they weren’t followed by Hingham, as well as many other communities. In some cases, engineering studies are required to justify speed limits, but they weren’t done, he says.
Hingham officials maintain that they have complied with the laws and that court rulings have backed them up. They received notice of the federal lawsuit, filed in Boston, this month, weeks after the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled against the suit filed in the state courts.
“The town will continue to defend its position, which has been affirmed by a couple of lower courts,” said Board of Selectmen chairwoman Mary Power, in an interview Monday.
Attorney Joseph A. Padolsky, who is handling the case for the town, said in a statement, “This most recent filing is the fourth complaint filed by Mr. Belezos’s attorney despite multiple earlier court rulings advising him that the town’s traffic signs are in accordance with Massachusetts law.”
Zotos himself was unsuccessful in fighting the town in the courts after receiving speeding tickets in 2009 and 2010, plus an earlier warning, before he took on Belezos’s complaint. He filed the class action suit in state court first, then in federal court, arguing that anyone who has received a ticket on a street where he says the speed limit was set illegally has been harmed and deserves a refund.
The state Appeals Court ruled against the suit in November, but said it was ruling on a procedural matter, not on the merits of the case. Zotos appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court in December, but the state’s highest court has yet to take up the case.
In opposing further state review, Padolsky, in a document filed with the Supreme Judicial Court in December, said that the Belezos complaint is very similar to Zotos’s own unsuccessful complaints. He noted that there is more than one section of law pertaining to speed limits that need to be considered, and that the courts had found Zotos responsible for driving 50 miles an hour in a thickly settled area, for which he was ordered to pay $200.
But Zotos says he believes Hingham officials, in accommodating residents who don’t want traffic on their roads, set unreasonably low limits and then aggressively ticketed drivers. He said a case in Salem, in which a driver successfully made such an argument and for which a state transportation official apologized in a report by WBZ-TV, supports his assertion.
Zotos, founder and chief executive of Pathogenics Inc., a biopharmaceutical company, said his research shows that the town of Hingham issued 1,834 tickets between September 2011 and May 2016, and that the rate dropped after he filed the state class action suit in 2014, but picked up after it was dismissed in Plymouth Superior Court in 2016.
He alleged that there are more than 60 “illegal” speed limit signs in Hingham, and that the town issues tickets at a rate of more than twice the average for municipalities in Massachusetts.
Power, the selectwoman, said she has “no data to suggest” her town is more aggressive than others in ticketing motorists.