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New Massachusetts Case Law on the Duty of Care

Does a party who leaves heavy-duty equipment unlocked, unattended, and running idle owe a duty of care to a plaintiff whose property is damaged by an unauthorized third-party user of the equipment? This was the question recently decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court in the case of R.L. Currie Corp. v. East Coast Sand and Gravel, Inc.

In that case, the plaintiff and defendant shared a lot where they each stored their respective trucks and other heavy-duty equipment. The defendant provided snow plow services. During a snowstorm in 2014, the defendant’s employee left a front-end loader running idle, unattended, and unlocked on the lot with the keys in the ignition. An unauthorized third party drove the truck and crashed into two of the plaintiff’s trucks, causing extensive damage. It was the defendant's practice to leave the keys to its front-end loaders, usually hidden, inside the vehicles. The plaintiff filed a claim for negligence, and a judge granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The judge held that the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care. The plaintiff appealed.

In order to prevail on a negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care; that the defendant breached that duty; and that as a result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered damages. In this case, the elements of duty of care and causation were contested. The defendant claimed that it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff, as it was not foreseeable that the damages would result. In particular, the defendant argued that plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of proving that the third party's unauthorized use of the defendant's front-end loader, and the resulting harm to the plaintiff's trucks, were reasonably foreseeable consequences of leaving an unsecured and idling front-end loader in the shared lot.

The Appeals Court disagreed with the defendant’s argument. “[T]he front-end loader is a large, heavy-duty vehicle capable of causing damage in the hands of inexperienced drivers, the defendant failed to follow its usual practice of securing its equipment by hiding the keys, there had been prior unauthorized entry onto the property, and the defendant knew that the plaintiff stored its equipment on the shared lot,” the Court noted. “In these circumstances, a jury could find that it was reasonably foreseeable that the front-end loader, when left unlocked, unattended, running idle, and with keys in the ignition, might be operated by an unauthorized individual so as to cause damage to the plaintiff's property on the shared lot.”

“Here, the harm that occurred to the plaintiff's trucks was not so attenuated; indeed, a jury could reasonably find that it was precisely the type of harm that was a foreseeable consequence of leaving heavy-duty equipment unlocked, unattended, and idling on a shared lot on which the plaintiff stored its trucks,” the Court held. “In this case…the damage to the plaintiff's property was not, as a matter of law, an unforeseeable consequence of the defendant's failure to secure its equipment.”

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