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O'Connell v. Walmsley

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 23, 2014

Maureen O'Connell et al.
v.
William Walmsley et al.
v.
Tapco, Inc., et al

Kent County Superior Court. (KC 05-161). Associate Justice Daniel A. Procaccini.

For Plaintiffs: Gregory S. Inman, Esq.

For Defendants: David E. Maglio, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

OPINION

Page 62

Goldberg, Justice.

The genesis of this appeal is a tragic automobile collision that claimed the lives of two young men and the resulting action for wrongful death. Before the Supreme Court are Maureen O'Connell and Paul Roberti (plaintiffs), in their capacities as co-administrators of the Estate of Brendan M. O'Connell Roberti, seeking review of a Superior Court order that granted the defendant William Walmsley's motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury trial. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

Facts and Travel

The tragic facts of this case emanate from a horrific automobile collision that occurred at approximately 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 9, 2003, in the Town of Coventry, Rhode Island. Earlier that evening, a group of young friends, Brendan O'Connell Roberti (Roberti or decedent), Jason Goffe (Goffe), Michael Petrarca (Petrarca), Frank Paolantonio, Jr. (Paolantonio), Erin Grant (Grant), and Derek Zisk (Zisk) met at Shooters, a pool hall and bar located on Cowesett Avenue in West Warwick. The friends remained there for a few hours, playing pool and enjoying a few rounds of drinks; at around 10 p.m., they decided to depart and travel to Zisk's house, located off of New London Turnpike in Coventry.

The group left the pool hall in three separate vehicles. Petrarca, who drove a commercial Ford F350 truck with Paolantonio as his passenger, turned left out of the parking lot onto Cowesett Avenue. Goffe followed in his Toyota Corolla, accompanied by Roberti in the passenger seat. Finally, Grant, traveling with Zisk, drove the last vehicle out of the parking lot, and remained--at all times--behind the other vehicles.

According to the occupants of Petrarca's truck, moments after leaving the Shooters parking lot, Goffe increased his speed, crossed the center line of the two-lane road, and passed the truck on the left. The Toyota then returned to the correct lane of travel and continued traveling at a speed of between forty and fifty miles per hour to the end of Cowesett Avenue; both vehicles then turned left onto Main Street and continued toward New London Turnpike, with Goffe's Toyota still ahead of the truck. After traveling approximately one-half mile, the vehicles were required to turn left and proceed around a triangular median, in order to access New London Turnpike. Petrarca avoided this route, however, by making an illegal turn onto a one-way street and passing the Toyota on the left, thereby regaining the lead as Goffe made a legal left turn onto New London Turnpike. Petrarca testified that he made this fateful maneuver " as a joke," however, he agreed that at this point, " it was getting a little crazy."

The vehicles continued west on New London Turnpike into Coventry; the road was straight with intermittent hills and dips. Although Grant continued to follow the Petrarca and Goffe vehicles, she testified that when she realized that she was traveling at about fifty miles per hour, she slowed down and saw the other vehicles speed away. According to Grant, it appeared that the two cars were racing because " they were about even with each other driving [in] the same direction," with Goffe's vehicle on the left side of Petrarca's truck, facing oncoming traffic. A dip in the road caused Grant to momentarily lose sight of the two vehicles; however, when they reappeared she saw headlights approaching from the opposite direction and watched as Goffe's vehicle swerved

Page 63

into the westbound lane in front of ...


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