In O’connell v Walmsley, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed a wrongful death decision of the RI Superior Court judge which determined that a drunk motorist was not negligent as a matter of law. The lowed Court judge made the ruling despite the fact that a jury determined that the motorist was at fault for the fatal drunk driving car crash.
A fatal crash in RI
On Sunday, March 9, 2003 there was a deadly automobile collision in Coventy, Rhode Island. This fatal wreck tragically caused the death of two young men. Years later, there was a negligence wrongful death trial. The family of one of the young adults who died in the crash was seeking justice and compensation for their loss.
Outrageous negligence jury decision
This RI motor vehicle accident jury trial was thrown into upheaval when an apparently misguided jury supposedly ruled in favor of the deceased estate but valued the young man’s life with a verdict for damages in the amount of $10,000! This is despite expert testimony at trial that the man would have earned over $900,000 in his life. See: Maureen O’CONNELL, et al. v. William WALMSLEY, et al. William WALMSLEY, et al. v. Tapco, Inc., et al.
A misinformed injury jury
The jury found in favor of the Plaintiff’s estate and found several defendants at fault for the car crash. But the miserly and apparently misinformed jury, “determined that the total amount of damages sustained by the estate, without adjusting for percentages of liability, was $10,000.” Id. After the jury ruled, Plaintiff’s wrongful death lawyer was probably miffed about the pennies verdict and sought a new jury trial on the merits and requested an additur. (a process in which the judge can add to the jury verdict at the judge’s discretion)
Judge quashes jury decision
To add insult to injury, the trial judge essentially informed the Plaintiff’s estate and family members, that they don’t even deserve $10,000 because they should get zero based on the failure of Plaintiff, in his opinion, to establish negligence on the part of the drunk, speeding driver. After the jury rendered its decision the judge, surprisingly, upended the jury verdict. The judge ruled that the drunk defendant was not liable even for the $10,000!
“The trial justice then proceeded to address plaintiffs’ motions, reasoning that in the event that judgment as a matter of law was overturned on appeal, plaintiffs’ motion for an additur to $250,000—the statutory minimum for wrongful death cases under G.L.1956 § 10–7–2—would be granted.” Id.
“Alternatively, the trial justice ruled that, if plaintiffs did not accept the additur, their motion for a new trial on both liability and damages would be granted.” Id.
Judge takes case from jury
In essence, the Plaintiff had a choice of taking the minimum allowed under the RI Wrongful Death Statute $250,000 or ask for a new jury trial. The Providence Superior Court judge, essentially, took the case away from the jury after the JURY ALREADY RULED THAT THE DRUNK DRIVER WAS LIABLE and decided that the speeding drunk was not liable as a matter of law.
“The trial justice granted defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, finding that there was no evidence presented tending to establish that defendant’s operation of his vehicle was a proximate cause of the collision.” Id.
Editor’s note: In essence, the Jurist determined that no reasonable jury could find in favor of the estate of the man killed in the car wreck. Id. The highest court in RI, The Rhode Island Supreme Court, sitting in Providence overturned and vacated the incorrect judge decision and sent the Rhode Island wrongful death auto accident cause of action back to the trial judge to sort out this train wreck of a trial. Somewhere, lost in all this legal wrangling is that two young people were killed by a drunk, speeding driver and a jury valued that the death of one young man at $10,000! Shame on the jury.
Facts of the Fatal Collision Case:
On that day of the fatal automobile accident, a group of men went drinking at Shooters bar in West Warwick, RI. Id The men imbibed rounds of beer, played pool and socialized. The group decided to travel to their friend’s house. The men left the bar in three motor vehicles; Ford F350, Toyota Corolla and another vehicle.
Car lost control while racing
The Providence Journal reported “The case grew from a March 2003 accident on New London Turnpike that killed Coventry High School graduates and hockey players Jason Goffe, 20, and Brendan O’Connell Roberti, 22. Goffe was at the wheel of car that lost control while racing and collided with the Cadillac DeVille driven by William Walmsley, then 47, of West Warwick. Walmsley and his passenger, Brenda Chandler, were seriously injured.” Projo article
RI drunk driving accident
Goffe and Roberti were pronounced dead at the scene. The medical examiner indicated that “acute ethanol intoxication” contributed to Goffe’s death as well as his injuries.” Id. “Walmsley told the court he and Chandler had spent the day of the accident eating, drinking and gambling at the casino. He estimated that he had consumed two to five beers but denied being impaired. He acknowledged that he had not seen Goffe’s car before the accident and did not take evasive actions.” Providence journal article
Coventry police estimated Walmsley was traveling at 40 mph and that Goffe was “significantly over” the 25 mph speed limit at the time of the crash. A blood test at the hospital about 45 minutes later showed Walmsley’s blood alcohol level at 0.106. The legal limit is 0.08 for those at least 21 years old.” Id.
The deceased victim’s Rhode Island wrongful death attorney argued that “On appeal, plaintiffs claim that the trial justice committed error by granting defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law…” Findlaw
RHODE ISLAND SUPREME COURT STEPS UP AND REVERSES
“The court faulted Procaccini for overlooking evidence, including that Walmsley failed to apply his brakes.” Projo
The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled: “It is undisputed that Walmsley was driving in excess of the speed limit, was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the collision, and did not see the Goffe vehicle or any other vehicle at any point before the impact. – See more at: here
“Thus, we are satisfied that the trial justice overlooked the evidence that was produced in this case, including the undisputed fact that Walmsley failed to apply his brakes before the collision. In doing so, the trial justice weighed the evidence, and exceeded his authority under Rule 50 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. Id.
The Rhode Island Supreme court determined that “Accordingly, we are satisfied that sufficient evidence was presented in this case establishing intoxication, speed, and an inference of inattention or diminished reaction time on the part of the defendant from which the jury could infer negligence and conclude that Walmsley’s failure to react was a contributing factor resulting in Roberti’s death. In our opinion, the trial justice placed far too much emphasis on the lack of evidence—by way of distance or roadway reference points—of the precise location where Goffe’s vehicle entered into Walmsley’s lane of travel. Id.
“The high court, however, upheld the jury’s negligence finding. It looked to the testimony of an expert witness who said that Walmsley’s 0.106 blood alcohol level following the crash would “significantly impair” his perception and reaction time. ” projo article
(Editor’s note: Rhode Island wrongful death law sets a minimum damages at $250,000 “With respect to any death caused by any wrongful act, neglect or default which is not known at the time of death, the action shall be commenced within three (3) years of the time that the wrongful act, neglect or default is discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have been discovered. Whenever any person or corporation is found liable under §§ 10-7-1 – 10-7-4 he or she or it shall be liable in damages in the sum of not less than two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000).” RI law