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Massachusetts Appellate Court Affirms Multi-Million Dollar Car Accident Judgment

A Massachusetts car accident resulted in an estate filing suit against a convenience store chain after a speeding driver ran into the deceased as he crashed into the front of the store.  The deceased’s husband and executor alleged the company had experienced several front-of-store “car strikes” and knew of the risks cars had to its store.  The estate claimed bollards or other barriers could have been erected along the walkway and entrance to the parking lot.  The estate argued this would have prevented a car traveling at high speed from injuring anyone, particularly the deceased in this suit.  A jury agreed and awarded the estate over $32 Million in compensatory damages, eventually reduced by the court to $20 million; and Gas Station$10 in punitive damages, which was waived since it did not meet the $5000 minimum.

The convenience store chain appealed, arguing it should have been granted a new trial after it improperly admitted an internal report about 485 prior car strikes at other stores.  The chain believed each accident referred to should have been subjected to a “rigorous” review to determine whether or not it was substantially similar to the accident in this suit.  At trial and during the appeal, the chain contended the accident was random and unforeseeable.  In response, the estate looked for reinstatement of the $32 million compensatory damages award, asserting the remittitur of the damages was improper. 

The location of the events was similar to other property owned by the chain gas station and convenience stores.  The store was surrounded by parking spaces for those stopping into the store as well as gas pumps.  No barriers or devices were set along the walkway.  The store was located at the “corner” of a three-way intersection that did not meet at 90 degree angles. Two of the three entrances to the property required drivers to slow down to make a turn and enter.  One did not.  This entrance allowed drivers to come straight from the apex of the intersection onto the property without reducing speed or turning.  The situation was dangerous enough for a store employee to complain to two separate managers, but nothing was done to alter the set-up of the property. 

The Commonwealth’s Department of Transportation discouraged use of apex entrances for years.  Several municipalities, including the one in this suit, banned this type of entryway due to its high level of danger.  The property, however, was exempt from this ordinance since it existed prior to its enactment.  Requests were made by the city and DOT to the store to close that entrance, but the store refused.  The chain did not install any barriers or guardrails, even though they knew that entrance would be closed soon for DOT construction on one of the adjoining road.  The chain also did not install any guard rails or bollards after hundreds of accidents at several of its stores between 1990 and 2010.  Cars, usually at a low rate of speed, would regularly lose control and hit the building. 

These increased in frequency in the late 90s and became concerning to an employee tasked with tracking the incidents.  Nothing was done to remedy the situation for several years after the 1998 assessment.  Several accidents continued to occur, causing catastrophic injuries ranging from deep tissue burns to amputation. Eventually the company chose to install bollards at stores that either generated a high amount of revenue or experienced two previous car strikes.  The store in this action did not meet either requirement.  For the stores that did qualify, many bollards were installed to protect property, but not the walkways in front of the store. 

The appellate court determined the estate was not obligated to determine whether each accident in the admitted report was substantially similar to the accident within this suit, thereby making the accident in this case foreseeable.  The court found it was merely necessary to show the company knew of the risk of uncontrolled vehicles striking the front of its stores and endangering customers and employees.  Previous cases have held the defendant was not required to foresee the precise manner in which the injuries occurred for liability to exist.  Even though many of the other accidents in the report were at lower speeds, the threat was still present.  The jury verdict holding the chain store accountable was upheld along with the remittitur lowering the award from $32 million to $20 million. 

The Massachusetts attorneys at Karsner & Meehan have several years of experience litigating car accident and other personal injury suits.  Our office will tirelessly work to unearth discovery that can establish years-worth of neglect to help maximize the damages you deserve.  For a free, confidential consultation call our office today at 508-822-6600.

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