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