O’Connell v. Walmsley – Negligence in Car Accident Case


In 2003, two young men in their 20s died in a collision with a drunk driver. However, when it came to determining liability, the courts struggled with the implications of the facts in  O’Connell v. Walmsely. Primarily, it has to do with comparative fault, or the degree to which the injured party contributed to those injuries (or in this case, death).

Naples car accident lawyers know that both Florida and Rhode Island, where the O’Connell case was heard, follow the pure comparative fault model, in which a plaintiff’s fault won’t bar recovery of damages, but may reduce the total amount recouped.

According to Rhode Island Supreme Court records, this case was brought by the parents of a deceased passenger against the driver of another vehicle that had struck in the opposite direction. Originally, the parents named numerous other parties as defendants, including the owner of the vehicle in which their son was a passenger (the father of the deceased man who was driving), as well as the father’s insurer. The other claims were settled prior to trial, but the one against the other driver continued to trial.

Witnesses reported the two young  men had earlier been out at a pool hall with friends, where they spent several hours playing pool and sharing a round of alcoholic drinks. After a time, the group agreed to leave and meet back up at a residence. They left in three separate vehicles.

Two of the drivers engaged in drag racing on a stretch of road that was straight, but intermittent with hills. The driver of one of those vehicles would later testify he believed the other to be traveling around 70 mph. An accident reconstruction expert later said this was unlikely, though he was undoubtedly driving faster than the posted speed of 25 mph. The driver lost control of the vehicle, entering the opposing lane.

At the same time, coming from the opposite direction, was a man and his fiancee who had spent the afternoon drinking and gambling at a nearby casino. Witnesses would later say the man made no effort to brake to avoid a collision. He claimed he didn’t saw the headlights on the other vehicle in his lane before it was too late.

Blood-alcohol testing would later indicate he’d consumed 10 to 12 beers prior to the collision.

At trial, one reconstruction expert indicated three main factors contributed to the crash: The failure of the first driver to control his vehicle, his failure to remain in his lane and the speed of both vehicles. Absent one of these, the crash likely would not have resulted in the devastation it did.

The jury found that the defendant was negligent and that this negligence proximately caused the death of the passenger in the other car. However, with regard to the issue of comparative fault, the jury assigned him just 3 percent of the fault. The lion’s share of the fault – 94 percent – was with the driver who died, while another 3 percent was with the friend who was drag-racing.

The jury assigned a total of $10,000 in liability to the estate. However, the statutory minimum award in that state for wrongful death claims is $250,000, so the award had to be increased to that much.

But then a trial justice concluded a motion for judgment in the defendant’s favor as a matter of law, finding there was not enough evidence to establish the defendant’s actions proximately caused the crash.

The case was appealed to the state supreme court, which vacated the trial justices’ ruling, holding there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding.

The state supreme court rejected the justice’s assertion that there was a lack of evidence to indicate the defendant’s intoxication and excessive speed contributed to the crash. The justice had indicated “three percent was not based on facts in evidence, but rather pure speculation.” The supreme court disagreed.

The drunk driver’s intoxication and excess speed were cited as the reasons why he did not see the other vehicle – or any other vehicle – until seconds before the crash. Therefore, he took no evasive actions to avoid a collision. Had he done so, the wreck may never have occurred.

While his degree of liability may be small in comparison to the others involved, it still played a role, and for that, he will still be required to compensate the family for the loss of their loved one.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

O’Connell v. Walmsley, June 23, 2014, Rhode Island Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Zelaznik v. Isensee – FL 2nd DCA Upholds $1.1M Verdict for Accident Victim, June 20, 2014, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog