A Suffolk Superior Court judge has awarded more than $6.7 million to the family of a Northeastern University student who died after falling down a set of stairs at a Boston bar in 2007, following a night of drinking. What’s surprising about the award in this Massachusetts premises liability case is that the judge’s award followed a prior jury verdict in this case, where the jury ruled that although the bar violated the city building code, it was not liable for the 21-year-old’s death.
Jacob Freeman died in a fall down a staircase at the Our House East Restaurant on Gainsborough Street in Boston in the early morning hours of April 1, 2007. Freeman’s family sued the bar, Gainsborough Restaurant, Inc., claiming that it was negligent in both its maintenance of the property and the staircase on which Freeman fell down, as well as alleging that the bar was in violation of the City of Boston building code, as well as other licensing violations. Approximately three months ago, a civil jury returned a verdict which said that while the bar had indeed violated building code mandates, it was not liable for Freeman’s death. To Freeman’s family, that verdict seemed contradictory – and it was. In all likelihood, the jury did not like the fact that Freeman’s blood alcohol level at the time of the accident was quite high, and it felt that if it held the bar liable and awarded damages, it would be in essence “rewarding” bad behavior.
As a Boston, Massachusetts accident lawyer, I find this kind of reasoning specious, given the evidence in the trial. Some of that evidence included the following: 1) The staircase lacked required hand rails; 2) The staircase was poorly lit; 3) It did not have a landing, among other hazards; 4) Management of the bar was aware that patrons had used the stairs on prior occasions; and 4) Freeman’s view of the staircase was obscured by vinyl stripes.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Elizabeth M. Fahey said that, notwithstanding the jury’s prior verdict, she ordered the bar to pay Freeman’s family $6.7 million in damages on the grounds that the bar violated the city’s permitting process for decades and ignored the several safety hazards that were presented by the stairs that Freeman fell down, in addition to several other violations. The judge made the above four conclusions in what is called a “Finding of Facts” in her ruling, which is otherwise known as a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (or “JNOV”, in legal parlance. A Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict allows a trial judge to modify or override a jury’s findings, if he or she finds that doing so is necessary to avoid a miscarriage of justice. Here, it seems that this judge felt that the jury was punishing the family of this deceased young man, due to the fact that he was intoxicated at the time if his injury. This ruling makes sense: The staircase this person fell and died on was not safe. The bar’s owners knew this for several years, yet did nothing to correct or remove these hazards. The bar’s owners also had failed to obtain required building and city safety inspection permits, for many years.
For the jury to confirm that all the above was true, yet deny any compensation to the estate of this injury victim, would have been manifestly unjust. To those who disagree, or feel that this type of ruling ignores the jury’s decision: Bear in mind that judges have the power to reduce jury awards that are not warranted by the evidence, also. This is called a remittitur. So remember, the judicial ax swings both ways. And in the meantime, the restaurant plans to appeal the ruling.
If You Have Questions or Concerns About a Slip & Fall Case, or any Injury Case, contact us for a free consultation. The Law Office of William D. Kickham has almost 20 years of experience handling slip & fall accidents, as well as a variety of Massachusetts personal injury cases. We know how to provide you with the best advice possible, adn how to obtain the highest compensation possible for your injuries.