A Massachusetts jury has awarded $32.4 million, plus interest, to the family of a woman struck and killed by an out-of-control SUV in a case that highlighted the surprisingly common phenomenon of storefront crashes.
The verdict was a victory for the husband and daughter of Kimmy Dubuque of Chicopee, Mass. Dubuque was 43 when she was pushed through a wall by the SUV as she was about to enter a Cumberland Farms convenience store in her hometown in November 2010.
The accident that killed Dubuque was far from an isolated event. Cumberland Farms alone had 485 “car strikes” from 2000 through 2009 at its 500-plus East Coast convenience stores, according to records submitted in the Dubuque case. Likewise, 7-Eleven once disclosed having more than 1,500 incidents over a seven-year period. In recent years, crashes on store property also have occurred repeatedly at other big-name retail chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Lawyers for the Dubuque family said Framingham, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms, one of the nation’s biggest privately held businesses, with stores and gas stations blanketing the Northeast, was at fault in the death. Despite repeated problems with cars driving at high speeds into the Chicopee store’s parking lot, they argued, Cumberland Farms failed to install bollards, safety barriers common in retail parking lots.
In addition, despite hundreds of previous “car strikes” at Cumberland stores, the Dubuque lawyers accused Cumberland Farms of dragging its feet in installing bollards throughout the chain. Even when an extensive effort began in 2011, the lawyers said, about 250 to 300 stores — roughly half of the chain’s outlets — were excluded.
In addition, evidence shows that after determining that arrays of 6-inch-wide bollards could be installed at a per-store cost of $3,000 to $3,500, Cumberland Farms switched to narrower posts and thinner steel to save money.
“There was very good evidence of a long pattern of neglect on the part of Cumberland Farms,” said Paul S. Weinberg, one of the lawyers for the Dubuque family.
Lawyers and representatives of Cumberland Farms failed to respond to repeated requests for comment. In a court filing, the company said the 81-year-old SUV driver, who apparently suffered a stroke or another medical episode, was “wholly liable for damages … because he lost control of his motor vehicle and drove it at a very high rate of speed.”
Weinberg said he “would not be surprised” if Cumberland Farms appealed.
As FairWarning has reported, many safety experts say that for a modest cost — often $10,000 or less — bollards or other barriers can be installed that give customers, employees and pedestrians substantial protection from vehicles that otherwise might jump a curb and careen into a store.
No federal agency keeps figures on such accidents. But a FairWarning review of news reports from early April 2013 through early April 2014 found that at least 16 customers, employees or bystanders were killed in crashes into store buildings or adjacent property.
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.