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RI Supreme Court Personal Injury Decisions 2008-2009

Rhode Island Supreme Court Personal Injury Decisions 2008-2009- Case Summaries by the RI Judiciary:

Kenneth J. Gianquitti, et al., No. 06-99 (July 1, 2009)

This case was an appeal by the plaintiffs, Kenneth J. Gianquitti and Denise Gianquitti, from judgments entered in favor of the defendants Atwood Medical Associates, Ltd. (Atwood) and Roger Williams Medical Center (Roger Williams), after a jury trial in the Superior Court.  In their appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial justice erred by (1) granting Atwood’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on its theory of direct liability against Atwood; and (2) refusing to give the jury a requested instruction on the duty of the interns and residents at Roger Williams.

In their first claim of error, the plaintiffs argued that they presented sufficient evidence to present their negligence theory against Atwood to the jury.  They asserted that Atwood deviated from the applicable standard of care by failing to have a formal backup system in place so that its on-call physician could call for backup if the physician could not handle all of his on-call duties alone.  Further, the plaintiffs argued that they had presented sufficient evidence that this breach was the proximate cause of Mr. Gianquitti’s injuries.  Mr. Gianquitti had developed a priapism after being admitted by an Atwood physician to Roger Williams for intravenous heparin therapy to treat the patient’s deep-vein thrombosis.  There was evidence that because of the attending physician’s duties as an on-call physician for Atwood over the Christmas weekend, the physician did not examine the patient until permanent damage already had occurred.

The Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence at trial on their theory of Atwood’s direct liability and that the trial justice erred when she granted Atwood’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.   However, the Court did not reach the issue whether, as a matter of law, Atwood owed the plaintiff a duty of care under the facts and circumstances of the case because the parties failed to properly articulate the issue below and did not argue or brief the issue to the Court.  As a matter of proof, the Court reasoned that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence of the standard of care applicable to Atwood through the expert testimony of a physician having knowledge of physician backup coverage for group practices.  The expert testified that Atwood deviated from the standard of care by failing to have backup for its on-call physician during the Christmas weekend of December 2000.  The Court further reasoned that the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that Atwood deviated from the standard of care and that its breach was the proximate cause of the patient’s injury because a reasonable jury could infer that if backup had been available to the on-call physician, the physician would have treated the patient before the condition caused permanent tissue damage.

In their second claim of error, the plaintiffs argued that the trial justice erred when she refused to instruct the jury on its theory of negligence of Roger Williams based on the alleged acts or omissions of its interns and residents.  Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the trial justice should have instructed the jury that if interns and residents of Roger Williams observed the patient’s priapism, then they had a duty under the circumstances to report his condition, and if they failed to report the condition and that failure prevented the patient from receiving proper treatment that would have prevented the injury, then the jury must find that Roger Williams was negligent.

The Supreme Court held that the trial justice did not err when she refused to give the proposed instruction.  The Court reasoned that the plaintiffs failed to present expert testimony to establish the standard of care for the interns under the circumstances or to establish that the interns deviated from any such standard.  The Court reasoned that the plaintiffs were required to present expert testimony to prove the interns’ negligence because the plaintiffs’ theory of negligence was not the type that would be obvious to a lay person.  The Court also refused to consider testimony given by the nurses and physicians that set forth the standard of care applicable to a nurse, an attending physician, and a urologist because they did not set forth the standard of care for the interns, who were acting under different circumstances.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court in favor of Roger Williams and vacated the judgment entered as a matter of law in favor of Atwood.

Theresa Young v. Warwick Rollermagic Skating Center, Inc., et al, No.08-111 (June 30, 2009

Theresa Young, the plaintiff, appealed from the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Warwick Rollermagic Skating Center, Inc. and John Durnye.  The Supreme Court determined that summary judgment was properly granted and dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal.

The plaintiff sustained a work-related injury in July of 1996 and subsequently filed a workers’ compensation claim with the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Court.  This claim was still pending when her employment was terminated in June of 2000.  After her termination, she filed a charge with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights claiming that the termination of her employment was the result of discrimination against her on the basis of disability.

On March 27, 2002, the plaintiff settled her workers’ compensation claim and, as part of that settlement, signed a release and resignation from employment.  Several months later, on October 8, 2002, the plaintiff commenced an action against the defendants in the Superior Court alleging violations of several anti-discrimination statutes.  The ultimate basis for these claims was the disability that she had incurred as a result of the work-related injury that she sustained in July of 1996.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that summary judgment was improperly granted in favor of the defendants because, in her view, the release that she signed in March of 2002 did not apply to her employment discrimination claims.  She argued that, because her workers’ compensation claim was separate and distinct from those claims, the language in the release applies only to her workers’ compensation claim and does not serve to bar her discrimination claims.  The plaintiff further argued that the release is ambiguous because it does not explicitly refer to her discrimination claim despite the fact that the discrimination claim was pending at the time that the release was signed.

The Supreme Court held that the language in the March 2002 release was not ambiguous and that it constituted a waiver of all claims which arose as a result of the plaintiff’s work-related injury.  Accordingly, the Court denied the plaintiff’s appeal.

Thomas Adams v. RI Department of Correction, No. 08-125 (June 30, 2009)

The plaintiff appealed from an order and judgment of the Superior Court granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant.  The plaintiff alleged that he became ill after ingesting a box of raisins distributed by the defendant as part of a federal food program administered by the state for the benefit of needy citizens.  The defendant argued that the public duty doctrine precluded its liability for any alleged tortious conduct and that no exception to that doctrine obtained in the instant case.

The Court concluded that the government action at issue in this case—namely, the storage and distribution of food—is an activity that private persons and corporations perform regularly.  As a result, the public duty doctrine does not serve to shield the defendant from liability in this case.  The Court vacated the Superior Court judgment granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

Irene Realty Corp et al v. Travelers Property Casualty Company of America, No. 08-147 (June 5, 2009)

The plaintiffs, Irene Realty Corporation and American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Company, appealed from the Superior Court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Travelers Property Casualty Company of America.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the hearing justice erred in deciding that Travelers was Irene Realty’s sole primary insurer and that, if the hearing justice did commit reversible error, then she should have held that Travelers and American Empire shared primary coverage (under the pro rata rule) or, in the alternative, should have held that Travelers was the sole primary insurer.

The Supreme Court held that the language of the insurance policies at issue was not ambiguous and that the specific “other insurance” clauses in the insurance policies did not actually conflict with each other.  Accordingly, the Court held that it was unnecessary to resort to the pro rata rule regarding apportionment of liability.  The Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.

Michael Botelho v. Caster’s Inc. d/b/a Caster’s Bicycles and Fitness, No. 07-270 (May 15, 2009)

This case deals with an appeal from a civil trial for negligence in which the jury ruled in favor of the defendant.  The plaintiff appealed from the Superior Court’s denial of (1) his motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of his alleged comparative negligence in causing the accident at issue and (2) his motion for a new trial.  Appellant further contended that the trial justice committed prejudicial error by giving multiple improper instructions to the jury; the plaintiff argued that the jury instructions were biased in structure and in presentation in favor of the defendant because, in his view, they suggested that the plaintiff had the burden of proving his own non-negligent operation of a bicycle at the time of the accident.

The Court concluded that the trial justice properly denied the plaintiff’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.  Considering the evidence adduced at trial in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party (the defendant), without considering its weight or credibility, the Court was satisfied that reasonable minds could differ on the issue of the plaintiff’s comparative negligence in causing the accident.  The Court also affirmed the trial justice’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial on the grounds that reasonable minds might differ as to the cause of the accident and relative responsibility of the parties.  Finally, the Court ruled that the plaintiff had waived his argument concerning the jury instructions because he failed to raise that argument with sufficient particularity before the trial court.

Carlo P. Berardis v. Bounthinh Louangxay, et al, No. 08-184 (May 12, 2009)

The plaintiff, Carlo P. Berardis, appealed to the Supreme Court from the Superior Court’s grant of motions for summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Bounthinh Louangxay and Oudone Louangxay (the Louangxays) and Louangxay, Inc., d/b/a Warwick Banquet Hall a/k/a Lei’s Bar & Grill (Lei’s Bar & Grill).  The plaintiff slipped and fell on ice covering the exterior entranceway to Lei’s Bar & Grill during a winter snowstorm.  The plaintiff filed suit against the business owner, Lei’s Bar & Grill, and the property owners, the Louangxays, alleging that the defendants owed the plaintiff the duty of maintaining the premises in a reasonably safe condition, that the defendants had negligently caused a dangerous and excessive amount of ice to accumulate on the entranceway to the premises, and that the defendants knew or should have known of the dangerous condition and failed to remove it or warn the plaintiff.  The plaintiff further alleged that as a direct and proximate result of the defendants’ negligence, he suffered injuries to his left elbow, knee, and ankle.

The defendants filed motions for summary judgment in the Superior Court, arguing that they owed no duty to the plaintiff during a continuing snowstorm, to clear the entranceway of ice and snow.  After a hearing, a justice of the Superior Court granted the defendants’ motions.  The plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court, and argued that the motion justice improperly granted summary judgment because he had shown that the accident occurred at the entranceway and the defendants had increased his risk of harm by periodically inspecting, but not shoveling, the entranceway.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.  The Court applied the “Connecticut Rule” as set forth in prior cases; it provides that absent unusual circumstances, a landlord or business owner has a reasonable time after a winter storm has ceased to clear a natural accumulation of ice and snow from its premises.  The Court held that the fact that the incident occurred at the entranceway to the premises did not justify departure from this rule.  The Court also concluded that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that any unusual circumstances existed in the case that would have required the defendants to clear the entranceway of ice and snow before the end of the storm.  The Court reasoned that the plaintiff failed to point to any conduct by the defendants that exacerbated or increased the risk naturally occurring during a winter snowstorm, which the plaintiff voluntarily undertook when he patronized the restaurant and bar.

Zaida Santana et al v. Rainbow Cleaners, Inc., et al, No. 07-268 (April 30, 2009)

The plaintiff, Zaida Santana, individually, and as parent and next friend of her two minor children, appealed to the Supreme Court from the Superior Court’s grant of a motion for summary judgment in favor of the defendant, The Providence Center, Inc.  Ms. Santana had filed suit in the Providence County Superior Court against the defendant, alleging that because of its negligence, she was severely beaten by David L. Kelly, a man who had been treated for a number of years as an outpatient at the behavioral-health facility owned and operated by the defendant.  Ms. Santana also brought a claim of loss of consortium against the defendant on behalf of her two children.  She alleged that the defendant had a duty to supervise and restrain Mr. Kelly, essentially to exercise control over his conduct to prevent the attack.  The plaintiff said that the defendant should have initiated certification proceedings under Rhode Island’s Mental Health Law, G.L. 1956 chapter 5 of title 40.1.  A Superior Court justice found that there were no factors in this case that would trigger the imposition of a duty upon the defendant, and therefore, she granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.  On appeal, she asserted that the defendant owed her a duty because: (1) a special relationship existed between the defendant and Mr. Kelly, (2) the scope of the burden imposed on the defendant as a result of this duty is reasonable and consistent with valid public policy concerns, and (3) the attack on her was foreseeable.

In this case of first impression, the Supreme Court addressed whether to impose a duty on a community mental health center to exercise control over the conduct of an outpatient by initiating certification proceedings.  After reviewing cases from other jurisdictions that have addressed similar issues, the Court applied an ad hoc approach to the determination of whether to impose a duty.  It held that the factors in this case did not warrant the imposition of a duty on The Providence Center.  The Court said that to impose a duty to exercise control over a third party, there must be a special relationship between the defendant and the third party that vests the defendant with the opportunity and ability to exercise such control.  The Court said that the plaintiff failed to come forward with any evidence that demonstrated that Mr. Kelly could have been committed under the appropriate statutory provisions.  As a result, the Court said that the defendant did not have the ability to exercise control over Mr. Kelly’s conduct.  Therefore, a special relationship that would trigger a duty to control was not present in this case.  The Court also considered whether the attack on Ms. Santana was foreseeable, the extent of the burden to the defendant and the consequences for imposing a duty with resulting liability for breach, and public policy concerns.   After reviewing these factors, the Court held that the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a legal duty.  Consequently, the plaintiff could not prevail in her negligence action against The Providence Center, and summary judgment was appropriately granted.  Finally, the Court held that the plaintiff’s claim of loss of consortium on behalf of her two minor children also failed because such a claim depends on the success of the underlying tort claim.

For the foregoing reasons, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.

Dennis P. Holley et al v. Argonaut Holdings, Inc., et al, No. 07-314 (April 20, 2009)

The plaintiffs, Dennis P. Holley and his wife, Brenda J. Holley, appealed to the Supreme Court from the Superior Court’s grant of a motion for summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Argonaut Holdings, Inc.  Mr. Holley was employed as an automobile salesman when he allegedly slipped and twisted his back at work.  The plaintiffs filed suit against the defendant commercial landlord alleging that its negligence was the proximate cause of the injuries sustained by Mr. Holley and the subsequent loss of consortium suffered by Mrs. Holley, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-1-41.  The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment in the Superior Court.  It argued that, as a commercial landlord, it did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiffs, that the lease insulated it from any liability for the plaintiffs’ injuries, and that even if a duty were to be found, the plaintiffs had failed to advance any evidence to support their allegations of negligence.  A Superior Court justice granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on June 18, 2007.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that the motion justice improperly granted summary judgment because the defendant owed the plaintiffs a duty of care, and a question of fact existed about whether the defendant negligently breached that duty.  The plaintiffs also submitted that the motion justice erred when he denied their request for a continuance to obtain additional discovery.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.  It held that a commercial landlord owes a duty of care to an invitee of its tenant only under the narrowest of circumstances.  Therefore, such a landowner is not liable for injuries that the tenant’s invitee suffers on the leased premises, “unless the injury results from the landlord’s breach of a covenant to repair in the lease, or from a latent defect known to the landlord but not known to the tenant or guest, or because the landlord subsequently has assumed the duty to repair.”  Lucier v. Impact Recreation, Ltd., 864 A.2d 635, 640 (R.I. 2005).  The Court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that any of the three exceptions to the well-settled general rule applied.  The Supreme Court also held that the Superior Court justice did not err when he denied the plaintiffs’ request for a continuance to obtain additional discovery before he granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.  Noting that the plaintiffs did not file any affidavits in opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and that two and a half years had elapsed between the date the complaint was filed and the filing of the summary judgment motion, the Court held that the motion justice was within the bounds of his considerable discretion when he denied the plaintiffs’ request for a continuance.

Finally, the Court held that Mrs. Holley’s claim for loss of consortium failed because it wholly depended upon the success of the underlying tort claim that her husband brought.

Ruth Henderson et al v. Newport County Regional Young Men’s Christian Association, No. 07-308 (March 20, 2009)

When the defendant, the Newport County Regional Young Men’s Christian Association (defendant or YMCA), learned that one of its employees, James W. Bell, had been accused of inappropriately touching several young girls during his tenure as their gymnastics coach, the defendant’s general counsel recommended that the YMCA Board of Directors conduct a review of its staff policies and procedures.  The defendant hired the Praesidium Group to prepare a written report (Praesidium report) after the plaintiffs, Ruth Henderson, Margaret Lama, and Taylor Lama Henderson (collectively plaintiffs), filed suit against the defendant, alleging that it negligently had hired and supervised Bell.  When the plaintiffs sought to compel production of the Praesidium report, the defendant refused, asserting that the document was protected by the work-product privilege.

In examining the record, the Supreme Court concluded that the Praesidium report indeed was work product as defined by and protected under Rule 26(b)(3) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.  The Court cited to the following facts to support its conclusion: (1) the defendant’s general counsel advised the YMCA Board of Directors to have an outside agency review YMCA staff polices and procedures promptly after learning of the alleged act of molestation; (2) the defendant hired the Praesidium Group only after this recommendation; (3) the review was done after the plaintiffs had filed suit; and (4) the Praesidium report and any relevant correspondence concerning the report bore statements indicating that they were privileged documents.  After concluding that the Praesidium report undoubtedly was prepared in anticipation of litigation and thus fell within the protective ambit of Rule 26(b)(3), the Court further ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a substantial need for the report that would have overcome the privilege.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the ruling of the Superior Court, thereby shielding the Praesidium report from discovery.

Cathy Lee Barrette v. Vincent John Yakavonis, M.D., No. 07-310 (March 20, 2009)

On June 9, 2006, the plaintiff, Cathy Lee Barrette (plaintiff), filed a complaint in Superior Court against the defendant, Dr. Vincent John Yakavonis (defendant), alleging that on October 2, 2000, the defendant was negligent in diagnosing and treating her injuries.  The complaint, however, failed to set forth any allegations concerning the five-and-a-half-year interregnum from the time the defendant treated the plaintiff to the filing of the complaint.

The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that it was time-barred by the limitations set forth in G.L. 1956 § 9-1-14.1.  Because the complaint failed to set forth any allegations relating to the plaintiff’s discovery of her alleged injuries that would have extended the period of limitations as permitted by § 9-1-14.1(2), the hearing justice granted the motion and an order was entered dismissing the complaint.  Subsequently, the plaintiff moved to amend the complaint to allege that “the injury was not discoverable until September of 2003.”  The hearing justice denied the motion to amend and a final judgment dismissing the case was entered.  The plaintiff timely appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that she was not required to plead the discovery rule by either Rule 8(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure or by § 9-1-14.1(2).  Alternatively, she averred that the hearing justice abused her discretion in denying the motion to amend the complaint.

The Supreme Court held that, because a party may move to dismiss a time-barred complaint, and because Rule 9(f) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure provides that allegations of time are material “[f]or the purpose of testing the sufficiency of a pleading,” the hearing justice did not err when she dismissed the complaint.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court held that the hearing justice did not err when she denied the plaintiff’s motion to amend because the plaintiff had failed to provide the justice with an adequate ground for invoking the discovery rule.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court.

Karyn Mumma v. Cumberland Farms, Inc., No. 07-112 (March 9, 2009)

We issued a writ of certiorari to review a decision by the Appellate Division of the Workers’ Compensation Court (Appellate Division) denying Ms. Mumma’s petition for reinstatement of the benefits she had been receiving as a result of her suitable alternative employment with her employer, Cumberland Farms, Inc. Cumberland Farms modified the terms of Ms. Mumma’s employment from full to part time after 312 weeks, thus terminating her suitable alternative employment.

Ms. Mumma contended that the Workers’ Compensation Court erred in applying the G.L. 1956 § 28-33-18(d) 312-week limitation of compensation for partial disability to the “suitable alternative employment” provisions of § 28‑33‑18.2.

The Court affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division, holding that an employer properly could terminate the “suitable-alternative-employment” position after the 312-week period had expired. The Court reasoned that it would be contrary to the intention of the General Assembly to read § 28-33-18.2 as granting an employee whose suitable alternative employment is terminated after receiving 312 weeks of compensation for partial disability more rights than she would have if either the employer had never offered suitable alternative employment or if it had terminated her employment before the 312-week period had expired.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the final decree of the Appellate Division.

James C. Lynch, Jr., et al v. Spirit Rent-A-Car, Inc., et al, No. 07-247 (March 6, 2009

On October 2, 2001, Kevin Lynch (Lynch or decedent) was driving on West Shore Road in a motor vehicle owned by Spirit Rent-A-Car, Inc. (Spirit), and rented from Alamo Rent-A-Car, LLC (Alamo).  While driving beside an automobile driven by Kenneth Germani, Lynch’s vehicle collided with a tree and he died shortly afterward.

The plaintiffs, James C. Lynch, Jr. and Patricia Lynch (collectively plaintiffs), co-administrators of the decedent’s estate, filed suit against Spirit and Alamo (collectively defendants) in Superior Court after the defendants denied the plaintiffs’ claims for uninsured motorist (UM) coverage.  After denying the defendants’ first motion for summary judgment, the trial justice granted the defendants’ second motion on the basis that there was no genuine issue of material fact with respect to the UM coverage provided to the decedent.  The trial justice concluded (1) that the defendants’ insurance policies did not provide Lynch with UM coverage and (2) that Lynch did not purchase insurance in the rental agreement with the defendants.  The plaintiffs timely appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued (1) that the trial justice violated the law of the case doctrine by granting the defendants’ second motion for summary judgment after she had denied the first motion, (2) that the defendants’ insurance policies (the National Union policy and the umbrella policy) provided the decedent with UM coverage, and (3) that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the decedent initialed those portions of the rental agreement expressly declining to purchase insurance coverage.  Accordingly, they contended that the trial justice erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments.  The Supreme Court first held that the trial justice did not violate the law of the case doctrine because she was confronted with new evidence and arguments in the defendants’ second motion for summary judgment.  Second, the Supreme Court held that the defendants’ insurance policies did not afford the decedent UM coverage because the original named insured in the National Union policy lawfully had reduced such coverage to zero pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 27-7-2.1(a), and the umbrella policy did not otherwise provide broader coverage.  Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that, in accordance with the clear and unambiguous language of the rental agreement, Lynch elected to forgo UM coverage because (1) he did not purchase additional insurance and (2) because the agreement itself contained a clause in which Alamo expressly declined to provide UM coverage and in which the renter expressly waived it.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

Monica Ouch, as Beneficiary of Heang Say, deceased et al v. Khan Kea, Alias, No. 07-333 (January 30, 2009)

On New Year’s Eve in 2001, the defendant, Khan Khea (Khea or defendant), a member of the Asian Boys gang, attended a party on Wendell Street in Providence with his associates Heang Say (Say), Thanaroeuth Ngim (Ngim), Peary Bun (Bun), and Angel Alvarez (Alvarez).  The defendant decided to leave shortly after arriving and walked back to his car with his companions.  Within seconds after the defendant started to drive away, however, someone armed with a rifle ran out of the driveway across the street and unleashed an onslaught of bullets on the defendant’s automobile.  The ensuing carnage resulted in Say’s death and in injuries that rendered Ngim a paraplegic.

On March 19, 2002, Say’s beneficiary, Monica Ouch (Ouch), joined by Ngim, Bun, and Alvarez, filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking compensatory damages, alleging that the defendant’s negligent operation of his automobile was the proximate cause of their injuries.  The defendant moved for partial summary judgment against Ouch, arguing that he did not owe Say a legal duty of care to protect him from the intentional criminal acts of third parties.  The hearing justice agreed and granted the defendant’s motion.  The defendant subsequently filed a second motion for partial summary judgment with respect to Ngim’s claims before a second hearing justice who concluded that she was required to adopt her predecessor’s decision pursuant to the law of the case doctrine.  Thus, the second hearing justice granted the defendant’s second motion for partial summary judgment.

The plaintiffs timely appealed to the Supreme Court, where the parties disputed whether the defendant owed the plaintiffs a legally cognizable duty of care—a duty that the plaintiffs argued the defendant breached when he drove toward and past a known danger (viz., “rival gang members”).  Ngim additionally argued that the second hearing justice erred in basing her decision on the law of the case doctrine.

The Supreme Court held that the defendant did not owe the plaintiffs a duty of care to protect them from intentional shootings by rival gang members.  The Supreme Court reasoned that the attack was unforeseeable and wholly unrelated to the operation of the defendant’s automobile, and it refused to permit the plaintiffs to bootstrap the general duty of care owed by a driver to his or her passengers into responsibility for injuries that in no way were connected to the vehicle or the driver’s conduct.  Because the Supreme Court held that the defendant did not owe a duty of care as a matter of law, it did not address Ngim’s arguments concerning the law of the case doctrine.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment by the respective hearing justices.

Michael Accetta v. Doris Provencal; Michael Norato v. Doris Provencal, No. 08-31 (January 12, 2009)

Michael Accetta and Michael Norato (collectively the plaintiffs) were involved in a motor vehicle accident with Doris Provencal (the defendant).  At trial, the defendant admitted that she was liable, but contested whether her negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries and disputed the amount of damages the plaintiffs suffered, if any.  When the jury opted not to award any damages to the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs appealed, contending that the trial justice erred in admitting into evidence photographs of the vehicles that depicted little, if any, damage because they lacked relevance and because they should not have been admitted absent accompanying expert testimony.  The plaintiffs further maintained that the trial justice erred in denying the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial.

On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court, upholding the trial justice’s rulings.  The Court explained that the photographs of the vehicles indeed were relevant when determining the force of the collision’s impact.  Furthermore, the Court accepted the trial justice’s conclusion that these photographs “were part of the story” and that they “complemented and supplemented the testimony.”  In response to the plaintiffs’ contention that these photographs should not have been admitted into evidence absent expert testimony, the Court referred to its recent decision in Boscia v. Sharples, 860 A.2d 674, 678 (R.I. 2004), in which the Court had explained that expert testimony was not necessary to introduce into evidence photographs of vehicles damaged in a collision to prove causation of passengers’ injuries.

Finally, with respect to the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial, the Court held that the trial justice did not abuse her discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ motion: she conducted the appropriate analysis of the evidence and articulated an adequate rationale for denying the motion.

City of Pawtucket v. Michael Pimental, No. 07-106 (December 15, 2008)

We issued a writ of certiorari to review a decision by the Appellate Division of the Workers’ Compensation Court (Appellate Division) upholding the 30 percent reduction of Michael Pimental’s workers’ compensation benefits under G.L. 1956 § 28‑33‑18(b).

Mr. Pimental contended that, because he was a candidate for further surgery, he did not meet the definition of having reached “maximum medical improvement,” and also that his due- process rights were violated when the trial judge reduced his benefits in a pretrial order before he was afforded a full hearing on the merits of the initial MMI determination.

The Court affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division, holding that an employee’s refusal to have the recommended surgery, when his recovery had reached a plateau in the absence of undergoing the procedure, may not be used to forestall a determination that the employee has reached “maximum medical improvement.” The Court reasoned that the statutory definition of “maximum medical improvement” allowed the determination to be made when an employee’s refusal to undergo surgery ensured that, in all reasonable likelihood, his condition would not improve. It further noted that Mr. Pimental’s interpretation was inconsistent with the General Assembly’s intent to deter waste and abuse and would frustrate the purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act.   Furthermore, the Court rejected Mr. Pimental’s due-process argument, holding that he was not entitled to a pre-reduction hearing under the three-part test established by the United States Supreme Court in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the final decree of the Appellate Division.

Joseph Sansone v. Morton Machine Works, Inc., et al; Morton Machine Works, Inc. v. Bristol Yarn Corp., et al, No. 05-72 (October 21, 2008)

Morton Machine Works, Inc. (Morton), appeals from two orders of the Superior Court: (1) the denial of its motion for summary judgment on its third-party contractual indemnification claim, and the granting of the third-party defendants, Robin Rug, Inc. (Robin), and Bristol Yarn Corp.’s (Bristol Yarn), cross-motion for the same; and (2) the denial of Morton’s motion to vacate the final judgment entered based on Rule 60(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.

The underlying action involves the personal injury of Joseph Sansone (plaintiff), who, when under the employ of Robin, suffered injury while operating a raw stock dyeing machine.  The plaintiff brought suit against the machine’s manufacturer, Morton, alleging negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability.  Morton thereafter filed a third-party complaint against Robin and Bristol Yarn, seeking contribution and contractual indemnification.  The Superior Court, under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, dismissed Morton’s contribution claim (Morton having conceded it should be dismissed) while refusing to dismiss the contractual indemnification claim.

The third-party defendants thereafter moved for summary judgment on the contractual indemnification count, with Morton objecting and cross-moving.  The motion justice granted the third-party defendants’ motion and denied Morton’s, holding that the indemnification provision covered only the equipment purchased in connection with that provision—not the entire machine—and that there was no dispute of material fact that the plaintiff was not injured by that piece of equipment.  Final judgment was entered based on Rule 54(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.  Morton appealed.

While an appeal was pending in the Supreme Court, Morton moved to vacate the entry of final judgment based on Rule 60(b) and to reinstate the contribution claim against Bristol Yarn.  Morton argued that it had conceded dismissal of the contribution claim against Bristol Yarn because it had relied upon the inaccuracies about that company’s relationship to the instant dispute presented in the third-party defendants’ memorandum of law to support their Rule 12(b)(6) motion.  However, Morton subsequently had learned through the third-party defendants’ responses to interrogatories, filed after the Rule 12(b)(6) order, but nearly nineteen months before Morton filed its motion to vacate, that Bristol Yarn was, in fact, the owner of the dyeing machine.  The Supreme Court remanded the case for the specific purpose of a hearing on the motion to vacate.

Morton’s motion to vacate was denied on the grounds that it was not filed within a reasonable time.  Morton appealed.

The Supreme Court held that the Superior Court properly granted summary judgment on the contractual indemnification claim because the indemnification provision, which must be construed strictly against the party claiming a right of indemnification, covered only one component of the entire machine.  Moreover, there was no genuine issue of material fact that the plaintiff was injured by a part of the machine not covered by the indemnification provision.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court held that the Superior Court did not abuse its discretion in holding that Morton did not timely file its motion to vacate because Morton had at its disposal, for a considerable period, the third-party defendants’ accurate responses to interrogatories and its own internal documents indicating that it had done business with Bristol Yarn.

In addition, after this case had been remanded to the Superior Court for the specific purpose of a hearing on Morton’s motion to vacate, Morton filed a second third-party complaint against Bristol Yarn.  The Supreme Court held that the Superior Court’s order granting leave to file this second complaint was outside the scope of the remand and therefore vacated the order.

Merrimack Mutual Fire Insurance Co. v. Ronald H. Dufault, No. 07-196 (October 17, 2008)

This case arose as a result of an insurance coverage dispute between the defendant, Frank Beauparlant (Beauparlant or defendant), who allegedly was injured in an automobile collision, and the plaintiff, Merrimack Mutual Fire Insurance Company (Merrimack or plaintiff), an insurance company that issued a homeowner’s policy to Ronald H. Dufault, Sr. (Ronald Sr.) and his wife, Pauline Dufault (collectively Dufaults).  Merrimack’s policy, which commenced on May 27, 1990, included a personal umbrella liability policy (policy) that extended coverage to relatives of the named insured who lived in the same household and owned a car, motorcycle, motor home, or recreational vehicle.

On February 4, 1999, Beauparlant was involved in a motor vehicle accident with the Dufaults’ son, Ronald H. Dufault, Jr. (Ronald Jr.).  At the time, Ronald Jr. was living with his parents, and the policy that is the subject of this case was in effect.  After the collision, Beauparlant filed a complaint against Ronald Jr., Travelers Property Casualty, and Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Company.  The plaintiff subsequently instituted this action against Beauparlant, the Dufaults, and Ronald Jr., seeking a declaratory judgment reforming the policy to exclude coverage for Ronald Jr. for the applicable policy period, or in the alternative, rescinding the policy as to him.

The trial justice issued a written decision based on an agreed statement of facts and found a mutual mistake between the parties concerning whether the policy’s coverage extended to Ronald Jr.  The trial justice granted Merrimack’s request to reform the policy and a judgment entered directing plaintiff to issue a restricted endorsement excluding Ronald Jr. from the policy that was retroactive to the time of the accident.  Beauparlant timely appealed.

On appeal, defendant asserted that the trial justice erred in finding a mutual mistake of fact, arguing that because Ronald Jr. was insured according to the clear and unambiguous terms of the policy, the trial justice should not have referred to extraneous evidence in finding a mutual mistake.  Next, Beauparlant contended that even if the trial justice properly considered extrinsic evidence, she nonetheless erred in finding a mutual mistake.

The Supreme Court held that the trial justice erred in referring to extrinsic evidence because, by the clear and unambiguous language in the policy, Ronald Jr. was covered.  The Court also concluded that the trial justice was clearly wrong in finding a mutual mistake of fact between the parties to the insurance contract.  For these reasons, the Court vacated the judgment of the Superior Court.

 

Legal Notice per Rules of Professional Responsibility: The Rhode Island Supreme Court licenses all lawyers and attorneys in the general practice of law, but does not license or certify any lawyer / attorney as an expert or specialist in any field of practice. While this firm maintains joint responsibility, most cases of this type are referred to other attorneys for principle responsibility.

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