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Liability to Protect Against Foreseeable Car Accidents: New Case Law

A recent Massachusetts appellate case addressed the issue of liability of a convenience store to protect against foreseeable car accidents on its property.

The case, Dubuque v. Cumberland Farms, dealt with a terrifying 2010 accident where the victim was hit by a speeding sport utility vehicle while she was walking into a Cumberland Farms convenience store. The victim died instantly. The car was traveling at high speed across an intersection and crashed through the façade of the store. At the trial, much evidence was admitted showing that the entrance into the store’s parking lot was an apex, making it much more difficult to navigate at a high speed.

The husband of the victim, as executor of her estate, brought suit against Cumberland Farms for negligence and gross negligence. The husband claimed that Cumberland Farms was on notice of the risks that cars posed to customers at its stores. The husband claimed that Cumberland Farms could have prevented the victim’s death by installing bollards or other protective barriers, as well as installing barriers at the apex entrance to the parking lot.

In defense, Cumberland Farms argued that it should not be held liable for the accident, as there have been no prior car strikes at that particular store in the past. Further, the defendant argued that the accident was not foreseeable and was random, and that no reasonable measures would have prevented the accident because it involves such a large vehicle traveling at such a high speed.

A jury found Cumberland Farms negligent and awarded to the plaintiff over $32 million in compensatory damages. The trial judge reduced those damages upon motion by the defendant, concluding that they were disproportionately high compared to the evidence. The judge noted that the damages were the product of some degree of passion, partiality, or prejudice. The judge ordered a new trial on the issue of damages, unless the plaintiff accepted a damages award of $20 million, which the plaintiff did accept. Both parties filed for appeal.

The Appeals Court addressed Cumberland Farms’ argument that in order for evidence of previous car accidents to be admitted at trial, those accidents must bear a substantial similarity to the accident in question. The Court held against that argument. “Absolute identity of circumstance was not required, and the reasons for the uncontrolled car strikes need not be the same,” the Court noted. “It is enough that the evidence showed that Cumberland Farms was aware of the risk of the uncontrolled car strikes at its stores; the evidence was relevant to both foreseeability and breach of duty.” There was no need for the trial judge to examine individual driver behavior and reasons for each accident prior to allowing the jury to hear about those accidents taking place, the Court said. Rather, “what was relevant was whether Cumberland Farms was aware of the risk of uncontrolled vehicles striking the fronts of its stores and endangering customers and employees. The judge did not abuse his discretion when he decided that uncontrolled car strikes, rather than the precise reason for the car strikes, were relevant to the jury's consideration of whether the risk was foreseeable and whether Cumberland Farms was aware of that risk.”

The defendant then argued that the admission of an internal report (which discussed, among other things, the various car accidents experienced on the defendant's properties) into evidence was highly prejudicial due to the sheer number of car accidents referenced, at 485, which was much higher than the number of accidents admitted in any other negligence case. The Court again disagreed: “The facts spoke for themselves -- Cumberland Farms had experienced an average of one car strike per week for a sustained period of time at various stores. Cumberland Farms was on notice of these occurrences and took steps to protect its property, such as the sign at the Chicopee store. The evidence was not presented in a way that overshadowed the trial.”

Next, the defendant argued that the accident was random and unforeseeable as a matter of law, citing that the driver unintentionally encroached on the adjacent public way and drove at “highway-like speeds.” Cumberland Farms argued that because the accident was unforeseeable, it owed no duty, as the risks of harm were not the type it knew or reasonably should have known about, and not the types against which it could have employed reasonable preventive measures.

Once again, the Court held against the defendant, affirming the judgment. “Cumberland Farms had experienced numerous car strikes at its stores, including uncontrolled vehicles unintentionally encroaching upon store property at high rates of speed. It also was on notice that the apex entrance posed particular dangers, and, in fact, vehicles had entered the Chicopee store property at dangerously high rates of speed through the apex entrance,” the Court noted. “Finally, the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to support a finding that Cumberland Farms could have employed reasonable preventive measures to address those risks. All told, therefore, we cannot conclude, as a matter of law, that no rational view of the evidence would warrant a finding of foreseeability.”

If you have any questions about motor vehicle accidents, negligence matters, personal injury law, tort law, intentional torts, damages, or other legal incidents, please contact our offices. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced professional today. Call 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online, and one of our experienced personal injury attorneys will get back to you.

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