Rhode Island community center cleared after teen stole van, caused fatal accident

By Carol Ostrow | Feb 21, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) – Exonerating a Providence community center in a tragic 2010 accident involving a stolen vehicle, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island recently upheld a Providence County Superior Court’s opinion that the facility had no liability in the incident.

In an opinion filed Feb. 5, written by Associate Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia, the court maintained that Nickerson Community Center ultimately was not responsible for the outcome of a teenaged trespasser’s actions in September of 2010, despite unfortunate loss of life in the plaintiffs’ family.

The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld a previous decision made in February 2016 by Providence County Superior Court Justice Richard A. Licht, closing a chapter that began when a 14-year-old boy broke into the building housing the Nickerson Community Center on Sept. 25, 2010.

He found keys to a red van, took the vehicle for a joy ride and subsequently crashed into multiple vehicles — the last belonging to Stephanie Flynn and Dennis Coelho and in which Flynn and other family members were riding at the time.

Their daughter Alexis was killed, while Flynn and another child were hospitalized with injuries, according to court documents. While the juvenile was later apprehended — and the Nickerson center itself filed a third-party complaint against him — parents Flynn and Coelho filed a complaint against the community center on Sept. 18, 2013, alleging negligence.

Nickerson, a nonprofit organization providing social services, filed a motion for summary judgment on July 9, 2015, asserting that it owed no duty to the plaintiffs in the absence of any identifiable relationship with any involved parties. Supporting documentation indicated that the center was actually closed at the time of the crime and was broken into with no staff on site. The youth had forced open a window to enter.

Flynn and Coelho countered with two statements allegedly obtained from the perpetrator made to various authorities — stating respectively that “an unidentified Nickerson employee” had informed him of the van keys’ location; and that, in an alternative version of his own story, he found the keys already inserted in the van’s ignition.

The plaintiffs also claimed that previous police reports should have served as notice to Nickerson officials that the area was prone to crime — ostensibly, reasoning that staff should have been aware that such an act was possible in the first place.

The couple also provided information from a longtime Nickerson employee implying that previous incidents of vandalism were common at the facility — in contrast to the staff’s assertion that the incident was a first-of-its-kind. Finally, they provided a witness statement from a Nickerson board member in which a description of the keys’ usual secure location contrasted sharply with information in accounts previously given.

Based on the defendants’ version of what happened, the parents asserted three possible explanations of the events — with all scenarios ultimately pointing back to Nickerson staff. The defendant argued in turn that only one of three possible scenarios derived from admissible evidence, being the break-in. Additionally, Nickerson countered, Rhode Island state law did not establish legal duty under the circumstances.

The lower court did consider whether the juvenile’s statements were admissible but deemed them as “too conjectural to be considered.”

Consequently, the presiding judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Nickerson Community Center on Feb. 23, 2016, noting that although discrepancies were questionable, the court was at a loss to establish a definite connection between Nickerson and the juvenile who committed the crime, finding the theft “an unforeseeable independent cause of … harm.”

The plaintiffs had provided no depositions or affidavits and neglected to request a continuance of the hearing. Additionally, the juvenile trespassing on the Nickerson property was an uninvited and unanticipated presence, records stated. Not only was he an intruder, but he was encroaching when the center was closed and no staffers were on the premises, further diminishing the assignation of responsibility to the community center.

Consequently, the judge ultimately determined that the plaintiffs failed to establish negligence sufficiently. Hence, it declined the plaintiffs’ statements.

In conclusion, the high court expressed its utmost sympathy to the grieving victims, but at the same time could not find any legal grounds to remedy the events of that day, stating that the nature of the events alone does not constitute liability on the part of the defendant.

“Because we hold that there was no duty of care owed by Nickerson in this case, the plaintiffs’ negligence claims against Nickerson must fail as a matter of law,” the court wrote in its final opinion. “The hearing justice’s grant of summary judgment was proper. For the foregoing reasons, the plaintiffs’ appeal is denied and dismissed, and the judgment appealed from is affirmed.”

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