Should a business be held responsible when a driver loses control of his vehicle and crashes through its storefront? According to a Massachusetts jury, yes.
After an SUV crashed into a Cumberland Farms convenience store, killing a customer, the company—not the driver—was held liable for $32.4 million in damages. The fatal crash was purportedly caused when the driver suffered a medical incident and lost control of the wheel. But the lawyers representing the family of the victim argued Cumberland Farms was at fault because speeding into the store’s lot was allegedly a known problem and thus the store should have erected “crash barriers.”
Cumberland Farms argued that the SUV driver should be liable for the damages as he lost control of the wheel at a high speed (70 mph). But the jury disagreed, finding the company liable for gross negligence.
Let’s examine this: In Massachusetts, the legal definition of “gross negligence” means the convenience store was acting with reckless disregard in not taking steps to prevent a SUV, travelling at 70 miles per hour, from crashing through its storefront window. Even a simple definition of negligence requires that Cumberland Farms failed to act reasonably. But how could the store even reasonably foresee that a man would suffer a stroke while driving into the parking lot and crash through the window?
The jury’s decision comes despite the fact that there are no state-wide laws in Massachusetts, or any other state for that matter, to install crash barriers in front of a store.
But an argument that brings a big legal payday is an argument that will be made with more frequency. That is surely why these types of lawsuits are becoming more common, such as the case filed this month in Alabama against Dollar General for a car crashing through its storefront.
In the Cumberland Farms case, the $32.4 million award was even higher when factoring in the $15 million in interest that was awarded (the case was first brought in 2012). The standard fee for the lawyers is one third plus expenses, which could total at least $16 million.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers cooed that this large verdict sends a message to other businesses who presumably should do more to prevent speeding tons of steel and metal into their businesses. But this message doesn’t seem to jibe with the Cumberland Farms verdict. The store was held liable for a total $47 million in compensatory damages, but only $10 in punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are monetary awards meant to cover the actual economic loss to the plaintiff. Punitive damages are supposed to punish the defendant and deter the company from continuing to be negligent.
What message does ten dollars in punitive damages send about Cumberland Farms’ supposed “gross negligence”?
It seems the real reason for the suit against Cumberland Farms was the opportunity for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to get millions out of this case, much more than they would have by holding the driver liable.