Massachusetts Court Upholds Verdict in Premises Liability Case; Discusses Innovative Jury Techniques and Question of “Control”

On August 29, 2003, several people suffered personal injuries and one person was killed when an improperly secured gate arm at the Gillette Stadium in Foxboro swung into a bus traveling on an access road. The stadium, which is the home of the New England Patriots, is on property managed by Foxboro Realty Associates, LLC, with security provided by Apollo Security, Inc,. parking operations managed by Standard Parking Systems.

According to the evidence, the accident occurred when the gate arm was not properly secured by its three pound pin, and a gust of wind blew it from the open position. The evidence demonstrated that Foxboro Realty Associates had promulgated a policy on securing the gate, but had failed to put the policy in writing. It was the job of Apollo to unlock the gate and the job of Standard to open and secure the gates at the appropriate times.

After a trial lasting several weeks, the plaintiff (who was the wife of the deceased passenger from the van) was awarded $4,400,000 for her husband’s conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death arising from the negligence of the defendants.

There were two issues on appeal: The instructions the trial judge gave the jury about discussing the evidence; and the issue of control, and whether Foxboro had sufficient control over the parking operations to be found negligent for the actions of its indpendent contractor.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the judge’s instructions to the jury that they could discuss the evidence in the case during the trial (which is most unusual in Massachusetts) were improper, because such discussions can only be allowed in civil cases when all parties agree. One party had objected. However, the court found that the error was harmless, because the evidence of the defendant’s negligence was very strong.

The Court also ruled that the trial judge had given proper instructions to the jury on control. Under Massachusetts law, an employer is not liable for the acts of an independent contractor unless the employer “retained some level of control over the manner inwhich the work was performed.”  The judge had instructed the jury that the employer could be found liable if it failed to exercise its control with reasonable care. The judge’s instructions were found to be consistent with Massachusetts law, and the judge was not required to give the instructions requested by one of the defendants. 

The case is Kelly v. Roxboro Realty Associates, LLC, 454 Mass. 306 (2009).

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