By: Karen Piso Nadeau, Esquire
In Massachusetts, there have been a number of recent car crashes into buildings, some with devastating consequences leaving people with serious personal injuries or even death. Grocery stores, convenient stores, malls, restaurants, and other businesses are typically bustling with employees and customers, especially now during the holiday season. As employees and customers, we assume we are safe when shopping for the perfect holiday gift or enjoying a meal with family or friends or working to earn some money. However, vehicles crashing into buildings are not uncommon. Vehicles crashing through store walls and storefront windows put employees and customers at risk, but who is responsible?
The driver of the vehicle is usually the initial focus of the investigation as to who is responsible for the harm caused by the crash. Motor vehicle insurance typically covers the negligent driver who causes the crash and hurts someone. Insurance coverage may not always be adequate to compensate a victim. Business owners and premise owners need to think about what they can do to prevent harm and keep their employees and customers safe. If they ignore their obligations, they may face liability for the harm they cause.
In Massachusetts, under the theory of premise liability law, a property owner or business has a duty of care to prevent foreseeable risks of harm. Failure to implement safety measures to protect the public from foreseeable risks of harm is a breach of this duty of care. If the property owner or business breaches its duty and this causes harm, the law holds the property owner or business responsible for the harm caused. The question is what can the business owner or property owner do to protect their employees and customers in the event a car is headed toward their store or restaurant or business? Actually, there is a lot they can do and should do. Otherwise, the property owners, business owners and corporations could be held responsible for the harm they cause.
Businesses and store owners usually have general liability insurance to cover them for failing to take reasonable steps to keep their stores and premises safe resulting in personal injuries. Dangers such as failing to remove ice and snow, unsafe walking surfaces, inadequate lighting, and the like are the types of unsafe conditions that typically lead to individuals being injured and bringing claims against the business and property owner. The corporations and their insurance companies too often refuse to accept responsibility in these cases, even when there is no third party to blame. They often blame the victim. When there is a third party involved like a negligent driver, there is even more resistance by the landlords and store owners and their insurers. They focus on the driver and human error. They deflect and blame the operator who jumps the curb or goes over the sidewalk. However, there is a lot these businesses and property owners can do to prevent harm that is reasonably foreseeable.
Under the law, the analysis begins with what the corporation knew or should have known. The law is not kind to intentional ignorance or turning a blind eye. It is public knowledge that people are injured and killed every year due to car crashes into buildings. The leading cause of these crashes is operator error- a driver made a mistake. Drivers with less than 5 years of experience and elderly drivers are more inclined to make these mistakes. According to the Storefront Safety Council, these types of accidents are expected to increase with the aging elderly population still driving as well as distractions from cell phones and mobile technology. The Storefront Safety Council collects data from various sources and provides the following leading causes of crashes into buildings:
30% Operator error
26% Pedal error
17% Drunk driving
11% Traffic accidents
8% Medical emergency
7% “ram raids”- intentionally driving into building to steal and commit theft.
In the United States, vehicles crashing into buildings occur 60 times a day. There are more than 4,000 people injured and 500 deaths a year due to these types of accidents according to the Storefront Safety Council.
Common operator errors as seen in recent building crashes include pressing the gas instead of the brake, going forward instead of reverse, driving intoxicated and a vehicle involved in an accident with another vehicle. Retail shops, restaurants, convenient stores, office buildings and other commercial buildings are all at risk. Small parking lots, parking with the nose facing the store front and poor design are all factors to consider in these types of accidents. Additional measures need to be taken to protect employees, customers and pedestrians from harm. Driver inattention and impaired driving needs to be taken into consideration by these corporations who invite the public into their restaurants and stores to spend money on their products and services.
Appropriate storefront barriers and bollards or posts are being used to protect individuals from a car going where it should not be. Testing has been done to determine how well barriers can stand up to a car crash. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) released standards for barriers that can protect against vehicles at speeds up to 30 mph. The effectiveness of barriers in the event of impact by a 5,000-pound vehicle was tested at speeds of 10, 20 and 30 mph. ASTM F3016 certifies the effectiveness of tested barriers. The problem begins with many businesses positioning storefronts toward the street for high visibility. Business owners and property owners are on notice due to the number of crashes into storefronts that they need to take steps to protect shoppers, employees and pedestrians.
There has been a recent surge of vehicles crashing into buildings. This is nothing new. In 2017, there were at least 5 crashes into homes and businesses in a two-week period in Brockton, Massachusetts according to The Enterprise. In one accident, two cars collided sending one of the cars into the storefront of a barbershop. In 2019, there have been a number of crashes into buildings here in Massachusetts including:
January 2019- Car crashed into Four Winds Apartment Complex in Fall River, MA leaving one dead and one in critical condition according to the Patriot Ledger.
April 2019- car crashed into a building in Sandwich, MA and a man sitting at his desk in the basement below where the vehicle knocked out a wall escaped injury according to the Cape Cod Times.
May 2019- an alleged drunk driver jumped the curb and crashed into a building in Ayer, MA according to Fox News.
August 2019 – an alleged drunk driver crashed into the shed of New Oriental Supermarket in Littleton, MA according to the Globe.
November 2019- a driver died after crashing into a CVS store in Beverly, MA according to NBC news.
November 2019- a car crashed into the Abington Ale House according to WHDH news.
November 2019 – two cars collided sending one into Merengue Market in Lynn, MA according to WHDH News.
November 2019- a car lost control and struck a commercial building with store fronts in Roxbury, MA according to NECN.
Owners of shopping plazas, restaurants, and retail stores need to provide appropriate protection and safety measures for pedestrians, customers and employees. The appropriate placement of barriers and bollards to protect the buildings from vehicle collisions should be considered and implemented. Failure to provide such protection may be a breach of industry standards and expose the business owner and property owner to liability in the event an individual is harmed due to a car crashing into their business or property.
The lawyers at Nadeau Harkavy LLC help victims and their families recover damages for their losses in serious injury and wrongful death cases arising from motor vehicle accidents. If you have any questions about your legal rights relating to a motor vehicle accident, wrongful death or other accident, feel free to contact us for a free consult today at 617-674-7640.