After a three-week trial, a jury in western Massachusetts on February 23 awarded over $32 million to the survivors of a woman killed in 2010 by a runaway SUV as she was about to enter a convenience store in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
By a 10-2 margin, the jury found convenience store chain Cumberland Farms negligent for not having installed security bollards or other protections for shoppers against the hazard of storefront crashes. The jury’s award of $32,369,024 went to the husband and teenage daughter of Kimmy Dubuque, a 43-year-old financial executive in Springfield.
Ms. Dubuque died after being pinned against a store wall when an elderly motorist drove his SUV at more than 70 miles per hour into the storefront. It was later determined the 81-year-old driver had suffered a stroke; he was not charged criminally or named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Lawyers for the Dubuque family told the jury that the company knew that the store design brought drivers directly towards the storefront, but took no steps to protect against a hazard of which the company was aware.
The trial spotlighted the surprising frequency in which vehicles crash into storefronts. The company’s records showed Cumberland Farms had experienced 485 storefront crashes during the previous ten years, approaching one per week. While there is no government agency that compiles official statistics on storefront crashes, 7-Eleven, the largest convenience store chain, in another trial testified it had experienced over 1,500 vehicle-store crashes during a seven-year period. The U.S. Postal Service also reported having almost 600 vehicle crashes into its buildings in one recent year.
California-based non-profit safety newsgroup FairWarning says storefront crashes in one recent year killed a minimum of 16 customers or employees and injured almost 600, about one-fifth of them seriously. The group adds that since it hunted news accounts to find storefront crashes, its number is likely to be an underestimate.
While driver medical emergencies factor in an estimated 6% of storefront crashes, the most common cause (in 41% of cases) is a driver’s mistakenly stepping on the accelerator rather than the brake. Other common factors include drivers falling asleep, losing control or driving while impaired. Safety advocates point out stores designed for head-in parking directly in front of the main entrance increase the risk of storefront crashes, absent effective barriers.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs also presented evidence that the company’s own research showed the best protection against storefront crashes would be to install groups of 6-inch-wide security bollards to block out-of-control vehicles, which would cost between $3,000 and $3,500 per store. The company’s biggest effort to install barriers, undertaken after the Chicopee incident, used weaker, cheaper posts and narrower-gauge steel; even that protection was not installed in about half the chain’s more than 500 locations.
The company’s lawyers argued security bollards were not mandated by any local, state or federal law; defense pleadings also argued the SUV driver was entirely responsible for Ms. Dubuque’s death, since his stroke led to the fatal crash. The defense also noted the Chicopee store had not experienced any previous vehicle-into-store crashes since the chain acquired it in 1974.
The $32.3 million verdict was separate from a multi-million award for interest in the long-pending lawsuit, first filed in May 2012. The jury verdict also included as punitive damages a nominal $10. The company was reportedly weighing an appeal.