After a car crash, it is not unusual to have at least two versions of how an “accident” happened from the humans involved in it. Some of this is a function of the locations of various witnesses when they made whatever observations that had of the events. So, for example, independent witnesses in traffic behind the point of collision may have sight lines obscured by traffic, weather and the configuration of the roadway. Even with great sight lines, a witness’ visual acuity may be less than perfect. Similarly, those in the involved vehicles may not have had the best view of the events leading up to a collision. Passengers may be sleeping, reading or otherwise distracted by events inside or outside the vehicle. In the case of larger commercial vehicles, like a bus, those in the back may not have a good view out the front. The involved operators, of course, while having what should be the best view of what happened outside their windshield, also have the greatest incentive to minimize their fault in causing a collision – even though they likely have insurance designed to cover any such unfortunate events. In short, human limitations and human bias, can often lead to difficulties in determining what really happened in a car or truck crash and who was at fault for the collision.

These issues can be exacerbated when responding police leap to factual conclusions by accepting the factual position of one party at the scene or inferences that can be drawn from the point of impact on the roadway. This is exactly what happened to one of our recent clients. He was involved in a head on collision with another car. The collision occurred in the other car’s lane. When the police arrived, based on their conversations with the operators, and their determination that the collision occurred in the woman’s lane of travel, they immediately began to focus on our client as the cause of the collision.

This changed, however, when our client was able to recover enough from the collision to point the police in the direction of his dash cam video. This shows that as the vehicles approached each other head on, the woman strayed into the oncoming lane as she was rounding a curve to her right. With about 3 seconds to respond, the other inexperienced driver instinctively tried to evade to the left. When the woman corrected back into her lane, the collision occurred causing our client’s car to spin off the road. The police determined the woman was at fault. Ultimately, we were able to recover fair monetary damages for our client.

For decades, the attorneys at Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C. [HBMH Law] have been representing victims of the operations of colleges and universities. These Institutions of Higher Education [IHEs] are in many cases massive corporations with operations extending well beyond what some view and their core educational mission. They own vast parcels of land on which they build large and complex structures to provide facilities to young adults. These include academic buildings, including science and engineering buildings, sports and recreation facilities and residence halls. With these operations, and the money generated from them, comes a commensurate responsibility to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances for the safety of their students.

There can be little dispute about the fact that many college and university students are under 25 years of age. While, as a society, U.S. jurisdictions typically set the age of adulthood at 18 years old, modern brain science has confirmed what the auto-rental industry has long known. Major brain development ends around age 25, well after the age of “adulthood.” Our IHEs concentrate these still-developing, young adults in environments that are fraught with risks that are in many ways unique to colleges and universities due to their mission of serving this concentrated population. These students “neurocircuitry remains structurally and functionally vulnerable to impulsive sex, food, and sleep habits” and are “highly vulnerable to driving under the influence of alcohol and social maladjustments due to an immature limbic system and prefrontal cortex.” As noted by the authors of Maturation of the adolescent brain “[a]dolescents may become involved with offensive crimes, irresponsible behavior, unprotected sex, juvenile courts, or even prison. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the major cause of death among the teenage population is due to injury and violence related to sex and substance abuse.”

The recent case of Doe v. Boston University, raises these issues in the context of the sexual assault of a young female student in her dorm room. As set forth in that case, during the Head of the Charles weekend in 2015, two unescorted MIT students entered 11 unlocked rooms in Boston University’s Student Village 2 dormitory, before they encountered Jane Doe, who was asleep in her bed. One the intruders sexually assaulted Doe. He reportedly pled guilty and was sentenced to five years of probation.

On August 28, 2019, after years of litigation, and following a trial that started with four days of motions in limine on July 1, 2019, a Massachusetts Superior Court jury returned a verdict for a combined $36.5 Million on behalf of three seriously-injured high school juniors who were injured in a head-on collision with a school bus owned and operated by First Student, Inc. Jeffrey Beeler, a Partner at Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C. [HBMHLaw], represented one of the seriously injured young women and obtained a verdict on her behalf of $6 Million, with another $750,000 being awarded to the victim’s mother for loss of consortium. The combined jury verdict of $36.5 Million in the 3 consolidated personal injury cases was recently recognized by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly as the largest jury verdict of 2019.

At the time of the collision, the three injured teens were passengers in a car operated by their teenaged friend. The collision occurred at a curve on a two-lane road less than 1/2 mile from their high school in Kingston, Massachusetts. Evidence from the trial suggested that the car was traveling at about 30 m.p.h. prior to the collision; the school bus, which was not carrying children at the time, was traveling at about 34 m.p.h.

Following the collision, both the bus and car ended up in the school bus’s southbound lane.  Due to their extensive injuries, none of the occupants of the car ever recovered their memories of the events leading up to the collision or the collision itself. At the scene of the collision, responding law enforcement officers had access to the bus driver who sustained minor injuries, and two eye witnesses, who also worked for the bus company. In fact, every “eye witness,” whose perspectives were a function of where they were on the curve and traffic in front of them, claimed that the car left its lane, entered the oncoming lane, and hit the bus. Criminal authorities quickly concluded that the car driver was at fault for the collision. The car driver, who never had a memory of events, was prosecuted and eventually accepted responsibility for her car being in the wrong lane.

See Something, Say Something

This simple motto can save so many people from so much harm.  I heard the Boston Police Commissioner say it on the news last night in reference to the two young women who were recently abducted after leaving two local bars in Boston.  It applies in so many areas of life, however. An example of a recent case handled by HBMH Law comes to mind.

In a recent case in Worcester County a female parishioner at the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church sought marital and spiritual counseling from the parish priest, Father Charles Michael Abdelahad (Fr. Michael).  Over the course of the treatment Fr. Michael, abusing his position of authority and dominance over the parishioner, convinced her that she was possessed by demons and that she was repressing memories of having been sexually abused by her father.

On September 12, 2015, Luke Tang, a sophomore at Harvard College committed suicide in the basement of his dormitory, Lowell House. HBMHlaw has been retained by the Estate of Luke Tang to pursue a wrongful death action against the President and Fellows of Harvard College and individuals alleged to be responsible for Luke’s death.

Given the Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 479 Mass. 436 (2018), (another case handled by HBMHlaw), the attorneys at HBMHlaw believe the evidence will show that Harvard and its employees failed to take reasonable and appropriate steps to prevent this tragedy.  In the Nguyen decision, the SJC held that where a university or its employees have actual knowledge of a student’s prior suicide attempt while enrolled at the college, the college and employees have a special relationship with the student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to protect the student from self-harm. Luke Tang attempted suicide at Harvard during his freshman year and the lawsuit filed alleges that Harvard and its employees failed to obey the requirements set forth in the Nguyen decision.

For most people involved in lawsuits, the thought of litigation is daunting and viewed as the great unknown.  Lawsuits are complicated, time consuming and have many twists and turns.   It is the intention of HBMHlaw in the coming days to launch a new webpage designed to provide a real-world example of such litigation to educate those who might be considering bringing such a claim as to what to expect and what such a lawsuit involves.  People interested in learning about the process will have real-time access to all public filings and all discovery conducted in the case from interrogatories (written questions) and documents exchanged to deposition testimony.  Further, there are often times when the lawyers disagree about how the case should proceed or what they need to disclose to the other side.  These disputes typically result in one party filing a motion with the court to have the court order the other party to do, or stop them from doing something they want to occur.  HBMHlaw will provide access to all phases of the litigation process in an attempt to share with people what actually occurs during the time their case is in the court system.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA], Massachusetts consumes nearly half of the natural gas used in New England. The majority of the gas is used to generate electricity, but residential customers use more than one-fourth of the state’s natural gas consumption and more than half of the households in Massachusetts rely on natural gas as their primary source for home heating.

Natural gas is marketed as cleaner, more efficient and often less costly for the consumer than alternatives like oil.Natural gas is delivered to these homes and businesses through an infrastructure of pipelines, many of them aging, and leaks are not uncommon. It is the flammability of the gas that makes it a useful fuel source. That same flammability and explosiveness, however, is what can lead to explosions, fires, death, injury and property damage.

It appears that such an event happened in the Massachusetts communities of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence on September 13, 2018. Reportedly more than 80 homes and businesses were impacted and many were seriously damaged by the 60 resultant fires. More tragically, one person is reported dead after debris from a chimney hit the car he was in when a building exploded. At least 25 others were injured in the fires. While it will no doubt take some time to determine the cause and origin of the fires and explosions, reports indicate that federal safety experts will be investigating and that state officials have been looking into the gas supply system operated by Columbia Gas which may have pushed high-pressured natural gas into a low-pressure section of the network. Columbia Gas has been working to address its 8,600 customers in the area. As a result of the incident, 18,000 customers are without electricity and as of the morning of September 14, 2018 road access to the City of Lawrence had been cut off by officials. Many institutions, including schools and the state Courts have been closed.

It is not too early to consider what the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 479 Mass. 436 (2018) means for Institutions of Higher Education [IHEs], students and courts. Attorney Jeffrey S. Beeler, at this firm, was counsel for the Nguyen Estate in this case against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]. Some initial observations about Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] are warranted.

First, the Supreme Judicial Court [SJC] made clear – again – that IHEs are “clearly not bystanders or strangers in regards to their students.” Nguyen, 479 Mass. at 450 (citing Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 51-52 (1983)). The era of IHE “bystander” non-liability is over.

Second, while breaking new ground in accord with long-standing principles of negligence law, the Court held that IHEs and their employees have “a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent [a student’s] suicide” in three circumstances. Nguyen, 479 Mass. at 453. They have an affirmative “duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm[,]” where they have “actual knowledge” of: (1) a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the [IHE]; (2) a student’s suicide attempt recently before matriculation; or, (3) a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide. See id. at 453-454. In such circumstances, “suicide is sufficiently foreseeable as the law has defined the term, even for [IHE] nonclinicians without medical training” to owe a duty. See id. at 455. The duty, at least for nonclinicians, is “limited to initiating the [IHE’s] suicide prevention protocol, and if the school has no such protocol, arranging for clinical care by trained medical professionals or, if such care is refused, alerting the student’s emergency contact[,]” — often a parent. Id. at 457. Among the reasonable measures noted by the SJC for IHEs are: (1) initiating the IHE’s suicide prevention protocol, if any; (2) requiring the IHE employee who learns of a student’s suicide risk to contact the IHE employee(s) empowered to assist the student in getting professional mental health support; (3) contacting the student’s emergency contact (often the parents) if the student is resistant to intervention; and, (4) “obviously[,]” in emergency situations, contacting police, fire, or emergency personnel.  See id. at 456.

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In 2015, vehicular crashes involving at least one large truck or bus were involved in an estimated 6,263,000 nonfatal crashes and killed 3,838 people in the United States.

Anyone who has been driving for any period of time on the modern-day rifle ranges known as Massachusetts highways has driven by and seen first-hand the devastation caused by automobile collisions. The carnage can be exponentially worse when one of the involved vehicles is a bus or truck. This is due to simple physics.  Force = mass x acceleration. The more something weighs, the more force it will impart at a given speed when it strikes another object. School buses are a particular concern. They often contain our children, do not have seat belts and weigh about 30,000 pounds. Large trucks weigh even more and can cause devastating injuries and death. Even smaller vehicles like pick up trucks can cause horrific tragedies and unfortunately illustrated by a February 19, 2020, collision in Florida that killed three Massachusetts residents and injured others.

Following a collision involving a commercial truck or bus, and really any vehicle with an airbag, it is important that an injured person take certain steps as quickly as possible to best preserve their rights. Indeed, in an ironic twist on the pejorative term “ambulance chaser” some insurers and defense law firms have rapid response teams designed to get to truck and bus collision scenes before the vehicles are cleared from the scene. These defense insurers/firms – in their effort to limit their legal exposure — know the value of seeing the scene with their own eyes, taking photos of the scene from the perspectives that put their employers in the best possible light and quickly identifying percipient witnesses. Of course, these corporations usually have an enormous advantage over an injured party. First, they are not injured and on the way to the hospital. Second, they have other people to begin the “risk management” process. Nonetheless, the sooner an injured party gets counsel working on their behalf, the better.

One of my favorite movies is “My Cousin Vinnie”.  In one scene, Ralph Macchio, who accidently left a convenience store with an extra can of tuna fish, thinks he is being questioned about this “shoplifting” when, in fact, he is being questioned about the murder of the clerk.

A written transcript of the dialogue would be:

Q:        You paid for the groceries?

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