Massachusetts Court Says Livery Firm Liable in Fatal Crash

December 1, 2008

A livery company and its driver could be held liable in a fatal car accident caused by a drunken passenger after he left the livery van, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled.

The Supreme Judicial Court found that Ultimate Livery Service Inc., of Boston, and its driver, Richard Broderick, could be found negligent in a 2001 accident that killed an off-duty Boston police officer and left several other people with serious injuries.

The court said Broderick should not have dropped off a drunken passenger at a location where he would likely get into a car and drive.

William Powers, along with five other men, had hired Ultimate to take them to a bachelor party on the night of Aug. 11, 2001. The driver picked them up in a 15-passenger van at a South Boston sports bar, took them to a strip club in Rhode Island, then drove them back to the sports bar. The men drank in both bars and during the ride to and from Rhode Island.

Powers, joined by two of the men, drove away after being dropped off and collided with another car at an intersection. The crash killed Sean Waters, an off-duty police officer who was a passenger in the other car, and passengers in both cars were injured.

Lawsuits were filed by Waters’ estate and the injured passengers, claiming that Ultimate and its driver were negligent in allowing Powers to leave the van at the Boston bar when they knew, or should have known, that Powers was likely to drive a car while intoxicated.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuits, finding that Ultimate and the driver were not responsible for the conduct of the passenger once he left the van.

But the SJC, in reversing that ruling, found that Ultimate and its driver, Broderick, “owed a duty” to the occupants of both cars. The ruling allows the negligence claims to go to trial in a lower court to determine if damages should be paid.

“Broderick knew, or should have known, that Powers was intoxicated, yet he allowed Powers to make his own judgment about driving, failing to take any reasonable precautions to prevent him from doing so. A jury could conclude that Ultimate and Broderick were negligent when they left Powers at a location where he would likely drive and pose an extreme danger to the public,” Justice John Greaney wrote for the court.

The court found that Ultimate’s insurer, Commerce Insurance Co., is required to cover the claims made by the passengers.

Kenneth Rosenberg, an attorney for the livery company, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

A national trade association said it was concerned that the ruling appears to ask livery companies to substitute their judgment for the judgment of its passengers.

“Our concern was that generally speaking, the duty of care to a passenger ends once the passenger safely disembarks from a vehicle,” said Alfred LaGasse, chief executive officer of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, based in Rockville, Md.

“There needs to be limitations, and quite frankly, traditionally, it’s once you safely exit the vehicle, you’re on your own. You’re responsible for your own actions,” LaGasse said.

Michael Bogdanow, an attorney who represented Sharlene Waters, the mother of the police officer who was killed in the accident, said many livery companies market their services to people who plan to drink heavily.

“They know that their passengers are drinking to the point of intoxication where they cannot safely drive and they cannot even safely make the decision about whether to drive. Given that, the transportation service should know better than to simply leave someone at their car,” Bogdanow said.

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