Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Flynn v. Nickerson Community Center

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

February 5, 2018

Stephanie Flynn et al.
Nickerson Community Center et al.

Providence County Superior Court (PC 13-4669) Richard A. Licht Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs Angelo R. Simone, Esq. John E. Sylvia, Esq. Michael St. Pierre, Esq.

          For Defendant Rajaram Suryanarayan, Esq. Kevin N. Rolando, Esq.

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


          Gilbert V. Indeglia Associate Justice

         The plaintiffs, Stephanie Flynn and Louis Silva, individually and in their capacity as co-administrators of the Estate of Alexis Silva (Alexis), and Stephanie Flynn (Flynn) and Dennis Coelho, individually and as parents, natural guardians, and next friends of Nevaeha Coelho[1] (Nevaeha) (collectively plaintiffs), appeal from the Providence County Superior Court hearing justice's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Nickerson Community Center (Nickerson or defendant). This appeal arises from a tragically fatal car accident in Providence caused by a juvenile after he stole a van from Nickerson's premises. The plaintiffs subsequently brought a negligence action against Nickerson. After a summary judgment hearing, the hearing justice granted the defendant's motion on the grounds that the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiffs. On appeal, the plaintiffs argue that genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute, and therefore the hearing justice erred in concluding that the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiffs. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         On September 25, 2010, a fourteen-year-old boy stole a red transport van-emblazoned with "Nickerson Community Center" on its side-and took it for a joyride, hitting a car on Manton Avenue in Providence and fleeing the scene in the vehicle. Next, attempting to evade police, the juvenile sped onto Route 10 heading southbound, by way of Westminster Street. The juvenile drove faster, headed toward Union Avenue, striking a black Honda. The van then crossed over into the northbound side of the expressway, colliding with a silver Nissan.

         Flynn was driving the silver Nissan, and three passengers were in the car, including her two minor daughters, Nevaeha and Alexis. After the vehicle was hit by the red van, Alexis sustained fatal injuries, and Flynn and Nevaeha were transported to the hospital with severe injuries.

         Later that day, Providence police officers responded to a report of a breaking and entering at Nickerson, which is a nonprofit organization located in the Olneyville section of Providence. The organization provides social services to residents in the area, including day care, after-school programs, and services for veterans; the building also houses a food pantry and clothing donation center. At the time of the break-in, Nickerson was closed for the weekend.

         When the police officers arrived at the property, a Nickerson employee, Kingray Rojas, met them. Rojas told the police that a rear window screen had been broken and an individual had entered the building. Rojas stated that the person had gone into an office and rummaged through a cabinet that had been left open. Additionally, Rojas told police, the thief had taken the keys to the van that were stored on a hook on a closet door and had stolen the van, later identified as the red van involved in the Route 10 accident. The juvenile was subsequently charged in the Family Court.

         On September 18, 2013, plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging negligence in Providence County Superior Court against Nickerson and Aetna Bridge Company.[2] The plaintiffs contended that Nickerson owed a duty of care to them and that it breached its duty by failing to secure the van's keys. Nickerson filed a third-party complaint against the juvenile for indemnity.

         On July 9, 2015, Nickerson filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe a duty to plaintiffs because it did not have a special relationship either with plaintiffs or with the juvenile who stole the van and caused the accident. In support of its motion, Nickerson submitted, inter alia, an affidavit from Lisa D'Ambra, the then-President of Nickerson's Board of Directors and acting Executive Director at the time of the 2010 incident. In the affidavit, D'Ambra stated that Nickerson had been closed during the September break-in and that the juvenile had gained access to the building by breaking a window screen and "forc[ing] open a window." The affidavit also described Nickerson employees' observations of the building after the break-in as "ransacked" in areas. Further, D'Ambra attested to the fact that the van keys were always kept in a closet in Nickerson's reception area when they were not being used. She also stated that no Nickerson-owned vehicle had ever been stolen prior to this incident.[3]

         In response, plaintiffs submitted their opposition to Nickerson's motion for summary judgment, supporting it with various exhibits, including two conflicting statements from the juvenile: one statement that he had made to a Rhode Island State Police detective shortly after the accident, and one statement that he had made to a Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) social worker more than a month after the accident, neither of which was a sworn statement. In his interview with the detective, the juvenile said that an unidentified Nickerson employee had told him where the van keys were located inside the building. Then, when the juvenile was assessed by the social worker as part of a court evaluation, he contended that he had seen the keys in the van's ignition, prompting him to steal it.

         The plaintiffs also attached to their objection numerous police reports evidencing unrelated criminal activity at the Nickerson property. The plaintiffs argued that this documentation of rampant crime, particularly break-ins at Nickerson and reports of vehicles broken into and stolen from Nickerson's premises gave Nickerson notice that the theft of the van and subsequent fatal motor vehicle accident were possible. Additionally, plaintiffs submitted that the deposition of Mario Cabral, a Nickerson employee for sixteen years, revealed that, prior to this incident, Nickerson vans had been vandalized, including broken windows and stolen license plates.

         Furthermore, plaintiffs provided evidence of Nickerson's security protocols in an attempt to demonstrate that, had those policies been followed, there would have been no way for the juvenile to access the keys. For example, in a witness statement to police, Betty Ann Palmisciano, a board member at Nickerson, explained that the van keys were stored in the reception area of the building in "a closet with a lock box."[4] In her deposition, D'Ambra also described this policy, stating that the reception area itself was also locked at the end of the night, in an effort to prevent the keys from ending up with the wrong person.

         On February 23, 2016, the hearing justice heard arguments on defendant's motion for summary judgment, and he ultimately granted the motion. The hearing justice highlighted the parties' different versions of events that purportedly occurred on the day of the accident. The defendant, the hearing justice acknowledged, maintained that the building was locked on the day in question and that the juvenile broke in and stole the van keys from a closet located in an "employee's [sic] only" area. Then, defendant averred, the juvenile used those keys to access the van parked in the parking lot, and he drove the van off the premises.

         The plaintiffs countered defendant's rendition of the events, asserting that there were at least three plausible scenarios[5] that might have occurred before the juvenile caused the accident on Route 10. The three scenarios are as follows: (1) a Nickerson employee informed the juvenile where he could find the keys, which is what the juvenile told police after the accident; (2) Nickerson could have failed to follow its security protocols in the building, which would have allowed the juvenile easier access to the keys inside the building; or (3) a Nickerson employee could have left the keys in the van's ignition.

         Initially, the hearing justice recognized that a motion for summary judgment can only be based on admissible evidence. He first focused on determining whether defendant owed a legal duty to plaintiffs. The hearing justice concluded that there was no special relationship between Nickerson and plaintiffs or between Nickerson and the juvenile.[6] The hearing justice also determined that there was no evidence that the keys were made available to the juvenile.

         However, even assuming that the keys had been left in the van's ignition, the hearing justice declined to expand the current duty that vehicle owners owe to the public, absent this Court's extension of existing case law or the adoption of new legislation. Accordingly, the hearing justice ruled that, because there was no relationship between Nickerson and the juvenile, Nickerson had no duty to control the juvenile's actions, and the theft "was an unforeseeable independent cause of [p]laintiff[s'] harm." Consequently, the hearing justice granted Nickerson's motion for summary judgment.

         The plaintiffs timely appealed to this Court.


         Issues on Appeal

         On appeal, plaintiffs first contend that there are a number of genuine issues of material fact that must be resolved by a jury. The plaintiffs posit three factual scenarios that arguably could have been catalysts for the van theft, and they argue that there are factual issues as to whether Nickerson violated its security policies and whether one of its employees informed the juvenile of the keys' location. Additionally, plaintiffs maintain that the juvenile stated at one point that the keys were in the van's ignition when he stole it. Therefore, plaintiffs urge this Court to adopt a test used in some other jurisdictions that imposes a duty on defendants who leave their keys in their vehicle's ignition, eventually resulting in an accident, when other factors are at issue, such as location in a high-crime area.

         The defendant counters that only one of the three factual scenarios proposed by plaintiffs is supported by admissible evidence: that the juvenile broke into Nickerson's building through a back window, stole the van keys from inside a closet, and then stole the red van. Alternatively, defendant avers that, even if this Court considers plaintiffs' other factual scenarios, Rhode Island law does not support the existence of a legal duty in those situations. Furthermore, defendant argues that Rhode Island's negligence case law does not support the adoption of the "special circumstances" test used by other jurisdictions and promoted by plaintiffs in this appeal. Additionally, defendant contends that, even if there were a duty, there is no evidence that Nickerson proximately caused plaintiffs' injuries.


         Standard of Review

         "In reviewing the granting of a motion for summary judgment, this Court engages in a de novo review, 'apply[ing] the same standards and rules as did the motion justice.'" Danforth v. More, 129 A.3d 63, 68 (R.I. 2016) (quoting Narragansett Indian Tribe v. State, 81 A.3d 1106, 1109 (R.I. 2014)). Although "summary judgment is a drastic remedy, it is nevertheless appropriate when, 'viewing the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court determines that there are no issues of material fact in dispute, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" DePasquale v. Cwiek, 129 A.3d 72, 75 (R.I. 2016) (quoting Pichardo v. Stevens, 55 A.3d 762, 765 (R.I. 2012)). Generally, "claims sounding in negligence are appropriately resolved through a trial, but summary adjudication is proper when the 'facts suggest only one reasonable inference.'" Cruz v. DaimlerChrysler Motors Corp., 66 A.3d 446, 451 (R.I. 2013) (quoting DeMaio v. Ciccone, 59 A.3d 125, 130 (R.I. 2013)). "[W]e will not hesitate to affirm a grant of summary judgment if the ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.