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Inc.

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

March 3, 2016

Michelle Williamson-Green, administratrix, [1]
v.
Equipment 4 Rent, Inc

         Argued November 3, 2015

          Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on April 24, 2009.

         The case was tried before Janet L. Sanders, J., and a motion for a new trial or for remittitur was heard by her.

          Judgment affirmed.

          Thomas F. Maffei ( Margaret C. Kelty with him) for the defendant.

          Joan A. Lukey for the plaintiff.

         Present: Kafker, C.J., Vuono, & Hanlon, JJ.

          OPINION

          [46 N.E.3d 572] Kafker, C.J.

          James Williamson was perched more than one hundred feet high on a boom lift, [46 N.E.3d 573] inspecting the roof of a university building in Boston, when the machine tipped over and

Page 154

crashed into a neighboring building, killing him. The boom lift had been manufactured by Grove U.S., LLC (Grove), and rented from the defendant Equipment 4 Rent, Inc. (E4R). Williamson's wife, Michelle Williamson-Green, as administratrix of Williamson's estate, successfully sued Grove and E4R for damages associated with her husband's wrongful death. The jury found that negligence of Grove and of E4R each was " a direct and substantial factor in causing the death of Mr. Williamson." The jury also found that " E4R's conduct [was] grossly negligent, wilful, wanton, or reckless." The jury awarded $3,692,657.40 in compensatory damages against E4R and Grove, together with $5,900,000 in punitive damages solely against E4R. The trial judge denied E4R's motions for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict,[2] judgment entered, and E4R appeals, claiming only that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's award of punitive damages.[3] We affirm.

          Background.

          In considering an appeal from " [t]he denial of a motion for directed verdict or a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict[, we must review the record] under the same standard used by the trial judge[,] ... constru[ing] the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and disregard[ing] that favorable to the moving party." O'Brien v. Pearson, 449 Mass. 377, 383, 868 N.E.2d 118 (2007). See Christopher v. Father's Huddle Café, Inc., 57 Mass.App.Ct. 217, 219, 782 N.E.2d 517 (2003). " Our duty in this regard is to evaluate whether 'anywhere in the evidence, from whatever source derived, any combination of circumstances could be found from which a reasonable inference could be made in favor of the [nonmovant].'" O'Brien, supra, quoting from Turnpike Motors, Inc. v. Newbury Group, Inc., 413 Mass. 119, 121, 596 N.E.2d 989 (1992). See Christopher, supra, citing Michnik-Zilberman v. Gordon's Liquor, Inc., 390 Mass. 6, 7 n.1, 453 N.E.2d 430 (1983). In light of this standard, we recite the general facts below as the jury could have found them, reserving some of the more specific facts for our detailed discussion of the different acts and omissions constituting evidence of E4R's gross negligence.

         1. General overview of the boom lift.

         The boom lift in the instant case is a Model A125J articulating boom lift manufactured by Grove and owned by E4R, a construction equipment rental company. That model of boom lift is depicted in the Appendix to this

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opinion. This " [a]erial work platform ... incorporate[s] multiple arm[ segments] that have articulating joints between them." The first arm segment, called " the riser," was a key focus of this litigation. Using hydraulics that tilt the riser, the angle of the riser can be elevated and lowered. Because the riser is made up of several nested metal sections, the riser can also be extended (i.e., telescoped out) and retracted.[4]

         Boom lift " manufacturers refer to the range of allowable working positions as the working envelope of the unit." This lift's [46 N.E.3d 574] riser has a " working envelope" of seventy-two to seventy-four degrees above the horizontal. Because this boom lift is very tall, extending as high as 125 feet, " the lift can become unstable and tip over" if two things coincide: (1) the riser is in an extended position, and (2) the riser's angle (from the horizontal) is fifty-five degrees or less (about seventeen degrees below the working envelope). A set of key boom lift safety features called the " riser interlock system" normally prohibits the lift operator from unsafely positioning the riser in this fashion.[5] Two integral components of the riser interlock system are (1) the " proximity sensors" and (2) the " riser retracted limit switch."

         2. Summary of the accident.

         On February 7, 2009, Gregory Johnson, an employee of roofing contractor Reliable Roofing and Sheet Metal, LLC (Reliable Roofing),[6] was the operator of the boom lift, which Reliable Roofing had rented from E4R. Williamson, who worked for a different contractor involved in the roof repair job on the university dormitory building, was a passenger on the boom lift and was inspecting the roof. After about two hours of operation, Johnson began lowering the boom lift's riser out of the working envelope while the riser was still extended -- an operation which should have been prohibited by the riser interlock system. When the riser angle reached about fifty-

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five degrees, the lift tipped over, inflicting fatal injuries on Williamson. As explained by one of Grove's experts:

" Based on my observations of the videos[7] and the inspections performed on the lift after the accident, ... the subject lift's riser interlock system was out of adjustment. One of the riser fully elevated proximity sensors was out of adjustment to the point that it would not indicate that the riser was fully elevated. Also, the mechanical limit switch utilized to determine that the riser was fully retracted [i.e., the riser retracted limit switch] was out of adjustment to the point that it would not indicate if the riser was extended."

         3. Summary of E4R's relevant acts and omissions.

         The jury could have found that the uncorrected adjustment issues caused the accident and resulted from the following interrelated problems with training, maintenance, and inspection by E4R: (1) E4R failed to properly train the person responsible for maintaining and inspecting the boom lift, including the riser interlock system; (2) E4R improperly installed a proximity sensor in the lift causing it to be out of adjustment; (3) E4R failed to discover the improper installation for nine months, even after many inspections; (4) E4R did not properly test the riser retracted limit switch; and (5) despite the dangers associated with operating the lift with a malfunctioning riser interlock system, E4R attached a tag to the lift that stated both " ready to rent" and " ready to use," and E4R's delivery [46 N.E.3d 575] driver told Johnson that the boom lift " was all set to go."

          Discussion.

          1. Standards for determining gross negligence.

          The jury awarded punitive damages against E4R pursuant to G. L. c. 229, § 2,[8] after finding that " E4R's conduct [was] grossly negligent, wilful, wanton, or reckless." E4R does not contest its

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ordinary negligence,[9] but claims on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's award of punitive damages. Because the plaintiff primarily relied on a theory of gross negligence in her closing argument at trial, we proceed to consider the sufficiency of ...


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