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R.L. Currie Corp. v. East Coast Sand and Gravel, Inc.

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Essex

August 21, 2018

R.L. CURRIE CORP.
v.
EAST COAST SAND AND GRAVEL, INC.

          Heard: April 3, 2018

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on September 26, 2014.

         The case was heard by Joshua I. Wall, J., on motions for summary judgment.

          Jordan L. Shapiro (Eric L. Shwartz also present) for the plaintiff.

          William J. Fidurko for the defendant.

          Present: Wolohojian, Milkey, & Wendlandt, JJ.

          WENDLANDT, J.

         This case presents the issue whether the defendant (having left heavy-duty equipment unlocked, unattended, and running idle with keys in the ignition on a lot shared with the plaintiff) has a duty of care to the plaintiff whose property was damaged by an unauthorized third-party user of the equipment. Concluding that the unauthorized use was not reasonably foreseeable, a Superior Court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff's claim for negligence.[1] We reverse.

         Background. We summarize the undisputed facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the party opposing summary judgment. See Herbert A. Sullivan, Inc. v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 439 Mass. 387, 393 (2003). The parties shared a lot where they stored trucks and other heavy-duty equipment used in their respective businesses. The defendant provides snow plowing services.

         During a snowstorm in January of 2014, at approximately 10:00 P_.M., the defendant's employee left a front-end loader running idle, unattended, and unlocked on the lot with the keys in the ignition.[2] The employee returned to the lot at 2:00 A.M. In the interim, an unknown and unauthorized third party had driven the front-end loader into two of the plaintiff's trucks, causing extensive damage.

         Although there had been previous incidents where items such as batteries and steel had been stolen from the lot, this was the first incident involving unauthorized use of the defendant's equipment. It was the defendant's practice to leave the keys to its front-end loaders, usually hidden, inside the vehicles. At least one of the defendant's employees, nonetheless, did not adhere to this practice because he did not want anyone else driving his vehicle.

         Following this incident, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging, inter alia, that the defendant was negligent in failing to properly secure the front-end loader. On cross motions for summary judgment, the judge granted the defendant's motion. The judge concluded that the defendant did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff and that the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of proving causation at trial because the damage to the plaintiff's trucks was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant's actions. The plaintiff appealed.[3]

         Discussion. Summary judgment is to be granted where, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c), as amended, 436 Mass. 1404 (2002). See Cargill, Inc. v. Beaver Coal & Oil Co., 424 Mass. 356, 358 (1997). "[The] party moving for summary judgment in a case in which the opposing party will have the burden of proof at trial is entitled to summary judgment if he demonstrates . . . that the party opposing the motion has no reasonable expectation of proving an essential element of that party's case." Dulgarian v. Stone, 420 Mass. 843, 846 (1995), quoting from Symmons v. O'Keefe, 419 Mass. 288, 293 (1995). Our review is de novo. Chambers v. RDI Logistics, Inc., 476 Mass. 95, 99 (2016).

         To prevail on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, (2) the defendant breached this duty, (3) damage to the plaintiff resulted, and (4) there was a causal relationship between the breach of the duty and the damage. See Jupin v. Kask, 447 Mass. 141, 146 (2006). "[T]he existence of a duty is question of law, and is thus an appropriate subject of summary judgment." Ibid. In addition, while each of the other elements typically involve questions of fact suitable for resolution by a jury, see, e.g., Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 58 (1983), proximate cause may be resolved as a matter of law, where "a plaintiff has no reasonable expectation of proving that 'the injury to the plaintiff was a ...


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