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A Rhode Island jury has held a car-leasing company vicariously liable for the negligence of a leased car driver, resulting in a $28 million personal injury award. The verdict against the Chase Manhattan Automotive Finance Corp. — one of the largest personal injury verdicts in the state’s history — followed the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s April ruling that long-term car-leasing companies can be held liable for the actions of leased car operators under the state’s owner and lessor liability statutes. In a consolidated case, the state high court reversed summary judgment to Chase and remanded for trial. Oliveira v. Lombardi, No. 2001-27. The $28 million verdict in favor of Pawtucket, R.I.’s Judith J. Oliveira includes $18.9 million in damages and $9 million in interest. Oliveira’s lawyer, Mark B. Decof of Providence, R.I.’s Decof & Decof, said the damages portion of the verdict alone makes it the largest verdict in state history. In the 1998 accident caused by Steven A. Lombardi, who was driving a vehicle leased to his father, Salvatore C. Lombardi, Oliveira suffered severe spinal cord injuries that left her paralyzed from the chest down. Steven was allowed to drive the car under the lease. NOT OWNER OR LESSOR? Chase argued that, even though it had paper title to the vehicle, it was not an “owner” because it did not have possession or control of the car, and it was not a “lessor” because it was not in the short-term rental business. Rejecting both arguments, the state supreme court said the statutory language cited by Chase was intended to expand liability rather than to limit it. “On talk radio,” Decof said, “there’s been a lot of discussion about how a court declared a new law out of the blue, but this is nothing new. These laws have been on the books for years, and the supreme court merely affirmed the plain language of the statutes.” He continued, “The proof in the pudding is that Chase was aware of this potential liability: They had tons of insurance. In this case, AIG (New York’s American International Group Inc.) covered $45 million per incident. AIG was calling all the shots about settlement offers. Chase wanted to settle, but AIG decided to take the risk of going to trial.” AIG’s office of general counsel asked for a copy of the case, but did not respond with any comment. Chase’s lawyer, James T. Murphy of Providence’s Hanson Curran, said the company was filing post-verdict motions and considering appeal options, so it was not appropriate for him to comment on whether the company would be making business changes following this verdict. However, Murphy did warn of the impact this case might have on the consumer. “There are about one million people in Rhode Island,” he said. “Assuming only 50,000 people lease their cars, leasing can become prohibitively expensive” if lessors have to pass on the cost of multimillion-dollar verdicts. The Lombardis were dropped from the lawsuit after they filed for bankruptcy in June. Their insurers, Amica Mutual Insurance Co. and Merrimac Mutual Fire Insurance Co., settled for $1.3 million on the eve of trial. “Most car operators have insurance,” Murphy said. “Here, they had plenty of insurance, but the court basically said that Chase has unlimited vicarious liability.”

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