Design Often at Issue in Storefront Crashes, Parking Lot Injuries

A Massachusetts Appeals Court has affirmed a multi-million dollar wrongful death judgment awarded to the estate of a woman killed after a vehicle ran into a Chicopee convenience store.

We have seen an increasing number of parking lot injuries and storefront crashes throughout New England in recent years. The Storefront Safety Council reports nearly half of these collisions involve a driver over the age of 60 and about half are attributed to operator or pedal error. The group estimate more than 500 people are killed and 3,600 injured in accidents caused by motorists driving into storefronts each year.

This case resulted in a $32 million verdict against a convenience store company after a woman was struck and killed by a speeding sport utility vehicle (SUV) that crashed through a Chicopee storefront, when the 81-year-old driver lost control. The victim’s husband, as executor of her estate, had argued the company was negligent for not installing bollards or taking other safety measures after hundreds of car strikes at its convenience store locations. The company argued it had no duty of care; that the event was completely random and unforeseeable; and that wrongful death was caused by the negligent actions of the at-fault driver.

Jurors found the company negligent. They also found the company grossly negligent (though the punitive damage award was only $10), ruling the company had engaged in willful, wanton and reckless conduct. The company filed motions for judgement notwithstanding the verdict, new trial and remittitur. The trial judge ruled the jury award was disproportionately high and ordered a new trial on the issue of damages unless plaintiff accepted a reduced award of $20 million. The plaintiff accepted, however the company sought a new trial on grounds the judge improperly admitted into evidence a report regarding nearly 500 car strikes at the company’s other stores.

Our injury lawyers in Bangor and Portland know these collisions are often blamed on a driver who loses control of a vehicle. However, businesses and commercial property owners owe a higher duty of care to customers and invited guests than do private property owners. This means safe design must be a priority, particularly in areas where motorists and pedestrians come into close contact.

At trial, design of the parking lot was carefully reviewed. Two parking lot entrances were found to be properly spaced from the intersection and designed in such a way as to force motorists to slow down to safely enter the parking lot. However, an apex entrance at the intersection allowed for direct access to the lot without a motorist being forced to slow down or make a turn. Such intersection design has long been discouraged by the state Department of Transportation, and the City of Chicopee had outlawed such parking lot entrances in the 1970s. However existing parking lots were “grandfathered” and allowed to remain. Court testimony revealed the company had declined requests by the city and state to redesign the entrance, pending a future road construction project. The jury also heard testimony contending the company had made little progress in a plan to make pedestrian safety improvements at many of its locations.

If you are injured, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-490-5218 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources

Dubuque v. Cumberland Farms, Inc., June 5, 2018, Massachusetts Appeals Court Decision

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