MA Appeals Court Finds Design of Parking Lot Not the Cause of Pedestrian/Motor Vehicle Collision and Res Ipsa Loquitur Inapplicable

Our client, the owner of a commercial shopping mall, prevailed against allegations of negligent design of its parking lot, with the court reasoning that “the mere fact that an accident occurred in a shopping mall parking lot does not compel the conclusion that it would not have occurred but for the absence of a crosswalk or other traffic controls.” Miller v. RD Methuen Associates LTD, 85 Mass.App.Ct. 1113, 6 N.E.3d 569 (2014). Instead, the court concluded that “[t]he accident may be attributable as much to driver error, the plaintiff’s own negligence or even a combination of these possibilities, as to the lack of a crosswalk or other control methods.” Since the plaintiff did not have sufficient evidence to prove causation, summary judgment in favor of the defendants was affirmed.

Helena Miller was struck by a vehicle as she exited a Wal-Mart store in RD Methuen’s shopping mall and walked across the parking lot in front of the store toward her vehicle. This exit had no crosswalk or other warnings indicating a pedestrian crossing, although the word “YIELD” was painted on the pavement. The plaintiff alleged negligent design, specifically “there was an absence of marked crosswalks or other warning signs, speed bumps, or other traffic calming devices,” and that the defendants otherwise negligently failed to maintain the lot. Co-defendant Wal-Mart had designed and constructed parking lot improvements in 2001 and RD Methuen reviewed and approved the Wal-Mart plans. 

The defendants filed for summary judgment on all counts. The judge granted summary judgment in two separate orders. In the first order, the judge determined that the statute of repose, G.L .c. 260, §2B, compelled summary judgment for all defendants “as to so much of the plaintiff’s complaint as alleges negligent design.” The judge, however, denied the motion as to 'negligent maintenance' and granted the plaintiff leave to file, within ten days, “a supplemental memorandum citing facts in the summary judgment record that support her negligent maintenance claims.” After review of the plaintiff’s supplemental memorandum, the judge granted summary judgment for the defendants as to the remaining claims for negligent maintenance on the grounds the offered additional evidence of other accidents in the parking lot were only allegedly the result of a lack of an extra crosswalk.

The plaintiff argued that the judge erred in allowing summary judgment because Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368, 372 (2010), imposes a duty on property owners and lessees to “make reasonable efforts to repair or remove any dangerous conditions, or at least warn against any dangers not either known to the invitee or reasonably should have known.” She challenged the judge’s distinction between negligent 'design' and 'maintenance,' and argued that the duty articulated in Papadopoulos, supra, should be interpreted to have required the defendants (as owner and occupier) to install a crosswalk or other warning device at the place where the accident occurred. She further argued that the defendants, as owner and occupier, are not protected from liability by statute of repose.

The court did not address the duty and statute of repose issues because the plaintiff’s case failed to establish that any negligence of the defendants caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In response to the defendants’ challenge on the causation issue, the plaintiff asserted only the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which the court found did not apply. Res ipsa loquitur “permits a trier of fact to draw an inference of negligence in the absence of a finding of a specific cause of the occurrence when an accident is of the kind that does not ordinarily happen unless the defendant was negligent in some respect and other responsible causes including conduct of the plaintiff are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence.” Enrich v. Windmere Corp., 416 Mass. 83, 88 (1993).

The court distinguished Edwards v. Boland, 41 Mass. App. Ct. 375, 380 (1996), which held that the plaintiff in a medical malpractice case was entitled to an instruction on res ipsa loquitur. The issue in Edwards was whether the plaintiff could reply on expert opinion testimony about the case of the injury to establish a factual predicate for the res ipsa loquitur instruction in a medical malpractice case. Id. At 375-376. An expert witness testified that the injury to the plaintiff was 'an event that would not take place without a departure from the normal standard of case on behalf of the surgeon or a member of the operating team.' Id. At 376. Thus, the court’s holding in Edwards arose from the peculiar circumstances of the medical malpractice claim; it did not announce a rule of general application outside that context.

Contrary to the plaintiff’s argument, the mere fact that an accident occurred in a shopping mall parking lot did not compel the conclusion that it would not have occurred but for the absence of a crosswalk or other traffic controls. Res ipsa loquitur did not apply in the Miller case because the facts of record did not eliminate causes other than the failure to install such controls. The accident may have been attributable as much to driver error, the plaintiff’s own negligence, or even a combination of those possibilities, as to the lack of a crosswalk or other control methods. The court reminded the plaintiff that it was her obligation in a negligence case to sort through all the possible causes of her injury and take her chances with the one or another of those causes. Res ipsa loquitur provides no refuge if the plaintiff fails to do so.

Property owners defending claims of negligent parking lot design can learn from this case:

(1) The deposition(s) of the other persons involved in the collision are critical to establishing that they knew the dangers the plaintiff alleges should have been warned or designed against, that alternative designs would not likely have prevented the accident and that they were solely at fault.

(2) Property owners should continue to press for the protection of the six year Statute of Repose for claims of negligent design of improvements to real property where they have had any involvement in the review and approval of plans, or the administration of the improvements.

(3) Plaintiffs cannot rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur for an accident in a location such as a parking lot without evidence eliminating other potential causes.

 

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