Massachusetts personal injury lawyer James M. Lynch reviews who is likely to pay after a stolen U-Haul van crashes in Revere, MA.
A police chase ended in a serious car accident when the fleeing suspect drove a stolen U-Haul van into an auto body shop last week in Revere, Massachusetts. The case began when police investigated a robbery at a restaurant, and included a collision with a police cruiser. While no one was hurt during the heist and subsequent chase, there was extensive property damage at the auto body shop, which caught fire after the crash.
Because the police chase and resulting accidents involved a stolen vehicle, this is likely to raise some interesting legal angles in any resulting personal injury case.
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The trouble began at three in the morning on Sunday, March 19, 2017. Fifty-year-old Robert Silvia, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, broke into a restaurant in Saugus, tripping the alarm during the attempt. When police arrived at the scene, they observed a stolen U-Haul in the area of the alarm. When they tried to pull the U-Haul over, the vehicle sped away and the chase was on.
Silvia led the police on a lengthy chase from Saugus through the city of Lynn, into Revere. There, Silvia rammed a Revere police cruiser, before slamming into an auto body shop on Broadway, which then caught fire. Luckily, the officer was not in the vehicle when the accident happened, and the auto body shop was empty at the time. Fire crews rushed to the scene to put out the flames before they could spread deeper into the shop, where flammable materials would have made a bad situation even worse.
No one was hurt in the crashes, not even Silvia, who was arrested and faces multiple charges.
While no one was hurt, the property damage from the crash was extensive. Not only was the police cruiser damaged, but the auto body shop was severely damaged from the crash and resulting fire. Additional reports suggest that the fire damaged another vehicle parked inside the auto body shop. Finally, the U-Haul van that Silvia stole was wrecked as well. All of the people and businesses who suffered property damage can be compensated in a personal injury case. Indeed, even if Silvia could not pay for the chaos he caused, the string of damages would probably trigger a variety of insurance coverages.
From a personal injury perspective, however, this case raises an interesting issue: Could the owner of a vehicle be held liable for the damage caused by a crash after his or her vehicle been stolen? If the answer is yes, then all of the victims who suffered property damage – the auto body shop, the owner of the car inside the auto body shop, and the town of Revere – would all seek compensation from U-Haul. If the answer is no, then they’d have to look elsewhere for compensation, including individual automobile insurance policies and the auto body’s insurance carrier.
One of the basic ideas in personal injury law is that people should be held liable for any injuries or damages that their conduct causes, even if they were just being negligent. This idea is meant to ensure that victims in accidents get the compensation they deserve from the people who caused the damage and cost the victim money, property and sometimes more.
In general, the “but for” rule applies when assessing liability: Person A has to pay for Person B’s injuries if, but for A’s conduct, Person B would not have been injured.
However, this liability for another person’s injuries only stretches so far. The injury has to be reasonably connected to the defendant’s conduct, as well. Only if the defendant’s conduct “proximately causes” the plaintiff’s injury will there be liability. Otherwise, we could keep going back in time, finding new and more distant causes for an injury. The concept of proximate cause becomes complicated when there is more than one cause for an accident. For example, in the Revere crash, one could argue that “but for” the U-Haul driver (or U-Haul itself) leaving the vehicle unattended, Silvia would have never stolen the van and caused the damage. However, the U-Haul driver will surely argue that Silvia’s conduct – actually stealing the van and causing the crash – is the real reason the damages occurred.
So then what happens when the owner of a vehicle leaves it unsecured (by, for example, leaving the keys in the ignition), a thief steals it, and causes an accident that hurts someone? Is the owner responsible, and therefore liable, or is the thief?
States are split on how to solve the problem. Many states pin the liability on the owner of the vehicle for negligently leaving it easy for a criminal to steal. This pushes people into taking extra steps to secure their cars and prevent thieves from taking them and causing a crash. (As a practical matter, this rule also increases chances that a plaintiff who suffers harm from a stolen vehicle will receive compensation for his or her damages, where a vehicle owner typically has better insurance and/or the capacity to pay damages than your typical car thief.)
Massachusetts, however, is not one of these states. Instead, Massachusetts has decided that owners shouldn’t be liable for someone else’s injuries in these situations. In Massachusetts, we’ve decided that those injuries – even though they wouldn’t have happened but for the owner’s negligence in leaving their car unsecure – are too far removed from the owner’s negligence. Instead, it’s the thief that’s responsible for the accident and the resulting injuries. In Gaines v. General Motors Corp. (1991), the Court provided a helpful review of Massachusetts in this area:
Massachusetts has been particularly reluctant to find a duty to take precautions against possible criminal activity. For instance, in Dhimos v. Cormier (1987), the Supreme Judicial Court held the operator of a store not liable for a fatal injury to the plaintiff in a traffic accident with a person who illegally obtained narcotics and alcohol from a third party in the parking lot of the store. The court indicated that, unless the criminal act is foreseeable in the sense of imposing a direct obligation on the defendant, as in a “dram shop” case (where there is a duty to refrain from serving alcohol to intoxicated patrons of a tavern), there is no duty to prevent it. … Thus, if an injury derives from criminal conduct, it is less likely that the risk will be foreseeable, removing the linchpin for the imposition of a duty. (Internal citations omitted.)
Even more problematic for the victims of Silvia’s spree is Jesionek v. Massachusetts Port Authority (1978), in which the Court discussed:
[T]he line of cases in which this court has held that negligence in leaving keys in the ignition of a parked car is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from the operation of the car by a thief.
The key question in cases such as this is whether the vehicle owner’s conduct was so negligent in protecting against theft that the owner’s conduct made the resulting damages was “foreseeable result” of the owner’s negligence. In this context, it is not necessary for the specific harm to have been foreseeable, but for an owner to be liable for damages caused by the theft of his or her vehicle, a plaintiff must show that the owner engaged in particularly risky conduct with respect to the thief. If the owner’s conduct was so negligent that it created a foreseeable risk of damages for the plaintiff, then a court might find liability. However, this is a difficult standard to meet, when most car thieves rely on surprise or stealth when stealing a car. In Massachusetts, it is rare for a vehicle owner to face liability for damages caused by a thief who stole the owner’s car.
Unfortunately, the practical significance of the Massachusetts rule is that victims are less likely to receive compensation for damages caused by thieves: In this case, U-Haul (or the individual who rented the van) is more likely to be able to afford the cost of the damage than Mr. Silvia, who we suspect may be spending some time in jail in the near future.
Although Massachusetts generally does not hold vehicle owners liable for damages caused by car thieves, the same may not be true for individuals who willingly lend their vehicle to friends or family members with poor driving records. For example, in 2010, a Norfolk County jury held two grandparents liable in a $12 million verdict after their 27-year old grandson, who had an exceptionally poor driving record, seriously injured two Needham brothers in an accident. Although such rulings are rare, the verdict illustrates how car owners must be careful when loaning a vehicle to friends and relatives.
About the Author: James M. Lynch is a Massachusetts personal injury attorney and divorce lawyer for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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