Articles Posted in Negligence

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.

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.

We have all been there. You wait in a long line to sign a son or daughter up for an activity in which they are excited to participate. By the time you get to head of the line, you are ready to quickly sign anything – including the innocuous-sounding registration form.  Even if you don’t read it, if someone gets seriously hurt, signing such a document can be a big mistake.

Many of these forms contain pre-injury releases of liability – often buried and in small print. While treated differently in many States, in Massachusetts, such a release may well bar a subsequent case regardless of the seriousness of one’s injuries. For example, in Cormier v. Central Mass. Chapter of the Nat. Safety Council, 416 Mass. 286 (1993), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld such a release finding that the “allocation [of] risk by agreement is not contrary to public policy.” More to the point, the Court reasoned that placing the risk of negligently caused injury on an inexperienced consumer as a condition of that person’s voluntary choice to engage in a potentially dangerous activity ordinarily does not contravene Massachusetts public policy. In the absence of fraud, deceit or undue duress, requiring a person to sign such a release before participating in such an activity does not render the release unconscionable.  So you’re stuck, right?  Not always.

Each case must be examined on its own facts. The language of these releases varies widely. Some are broad, others narrow and all are subject to interpretation. Doubts about the interpretation of the release must be resolved in the injured person’s favor, but the law books are littered with cases that ended badly for the Plaintiff due to these releases. In addition, there is a body of law that stands for the proposition that these releases cannot protect against claims for gross negligence nor can they protect against liability arising out of the violation of a statutory or regulatory duty. See White Const. Co., Inc. v. Commonwealth, 11 Mass. App. Ct. 640, 647 (1981). Finding such statutory and regulatory duties can be difficult, but finding one can be decisive and render a claimed release void, allowing the case to proceed.

How will the possibly, perhaps inevitably, driverless future impact motor vehicle accidents? In 2015 there were over 6 million reported car crashes that resulted in over 2 million injuries.[1]  The primary cause behind most motor vehicle crashes is human error; for all the things humans do well, driving isn’t necessarily one of them.

In 2014 Tesla released the Model S, which included a tech package option that had autopilot features.[2]  Tesla’s idea was to have a system that could handle some of the responsibilities of driving to eliminate some of the deficiencies inherent in humans drivers.  Tesla, among other car manufacturers and some tech companies, believe computer operated cars could someday eliminate human errors in driving entirely.[3]

Unfortunately, in 2016 a Tesla car operating on autopilot resulted in a fatal crash for the car’s driver.[4]  The crash was an unfortunate tragedy, but the incident raised a number important legal questions:

Often, one of the best parts of an educational experience comes from putting the books and lectures aside while getting out into the real world to see and experience things. Unfortunately, such trips sometimes come with various risks of injury, and the Courts are, at times, called on to address resultant claims.

Recently, the Connecticut Supreme Court, in Munn v. The Hotchkiss School, 326 Conn. 540 (2017), was called upon to decide whether Connecticut public policy mandated an exception to the general rule that schools must refrain from negligently exposing their students to foreseeable dangers. The Court answered this question with a definitive no, and held that Connecticut public policy does not preclude imposing a duty on the school to warn about or to protect against the risk of serious insect-borne disease when taking a school trip.

The issue arose in connection with a school trip to China that led to a 15-year-old student contracting a very rare tick-borne encephalitis that resulted in horrific neurological injuries. In connection with a trip to Mt. Panshan, where the tick bite occurred, the Plaintiff argued that students were not warned to wear clothing that would protect against bites or to apply insect repellant. A Federal Court jury agreed the school was at fault, that the risks encountered were foreseeable to the school, and that economic damages in the amount of $10.25 Million and $31.5 Million in noneconomic damages were warranted. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment insofar as it agreed that the Plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence at trial for the jury to find that her illness was foreseeable.  This last point is quite important: it is for the fully-informed jury – at trial – to answer the foreseeability question that is central to all negligence cases.

Owners of property and persons in control of property have a responsibility under the law to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition.  Now that winter is approaching, questions arise as to the responsibility of property owners, landlords and business owners to clear snow and ice on their properties.

Beginning in 1883 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court began to analyze the duty of a landlord to a tenant who fell in a common area.  From this earliest decision arose what other states and commentators have called the “Massachusetts Rule.”  This rule provided that a landlord and others who owned or controlled property could not be held liable for natural accumulations of snow or ice.  When snow fell, the landlord or business owner could simply let the snow accumulate without fault.  However, owners of land could be found liable if a person was injured on the property due to an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice.  One of the earlier decisions in Massachusetts involved a tenant that slipped and fell on ice in a common area of a tenement house. In this case, the accumulation of ice was created by a broken water pipe.  The court imposed liability for the landlord’s failure to fix the pipe “for which he was as much responsible as if he had placed the water there by his voluntary act.”  Watkins v. Goodall, 138 Mass. 533, 537 (1885).

For over 100 years this distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice served as the basis for deciding whether an owner of land could be found responsible for the harms and losses of people who were injured due to winter conditions.  However in 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010), eliminated this distinction and held that there exists for “all hazards arising from snow and ice the same obligation of reasonable care that a property owner owes to lawful visitors regarding all other hazards.”  In other words, a landowner owes a duty of reasonable care for all conditions on his/her property.

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