BOSTON – In the summer of 1999, AAA got a call about a young woman whose car had broken down in a parking lot on Cape Cod. The auto club told the woman's stepfather it would send help.
Melissa Gosule never made it home that night.
Her body was found in a shallow grave eight days later. She had been raped and stabbed to death.
Gosule's family sued AAA for unspecified damages, claiming that if the auto club had done its job that night, she would be alive today. Jury selection began Monday in state court in Plymouth, south of Boston, in the negligence and wrongful-death (search) case.
The case is being watched closely because it is the first time AAA has been sued in the death of a motorist who was killed after seeking assistance from the auto club, legal experts said.
Every year, the American Automobile Association (search), with a dues-paying membership of more than 46 million in the United States and Canada, gets about 30 million calls from motorists who need help with dead batteries, flat tires and other roadside problems.
In their lawsuit, Gosule's parents, Leslie Gosule and Sandra Glaser, and her stepfather, Peter Glaser, claim AAA left Gosule stranded and forced to turn to a stranger for help. That stranger, Michael Gentile (search), killed her.
"AAA is not who they say they are," Leslie Gosule said recently in a statement. "Had AAA done what they tell the world they do and what they said they were going to do -- provide reliable and reasonable emergency roadside assistance that night -- Melissa would still be with us."
Gosule's parents note that AAA, in its marketing materials, touts the peace of mind it provides to motorists in trouble. "One call to AAA and your worries are over," reads one brochure. AAA also refers to itself as "family" and warns against depending on strangers: "In today's world, relying on strangers has become a scary (and sometimes dangerous) thing to do."
The lawsuit names national AAA; its local affiliate, AAA Southern New England; and the tow truck driver.
AAA disputes the family's claims that it did not offer Gosule help, and says it should not be held responsible for her death. Gentile, a newspaper delivery man with a long criminal record, was convicted of her murder and is now serving a life sentence.
On July 11, 1999, Gosule, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher, had returned at 5:30 p.m. from a bike ride at a park in Bourne to find that her 1986 Pontiac would not start.
It was about that time that she met Gentile, according to testimony during Gentile's trial in 2000.
Gosule used Gentile's cell phone to call her mother and stepfather, who told her he would call AAA for help. Gosule was not a member of AAA, but her stepfather was, and it is routine for the auto club to help out relatives of AAA members.
In their lawsuit, Gosule's family says her stepfather immediately called the AAA's 24-hour emergency roadside assistance number and asked that the car and Gosule be taken to a garage in Boston. John Cubellis, a tow truck driver whose company is an agent for AAA, arrived at the parking lot about 90 minutes later.
According to both sides, Cubellis told Gosule he was busy and it would be three to four hours before he could take her or her car to Boston, about 60 miles away. The Gosule family says Cubellis did not try to start the young woman's car, make sure she was taken to a safe location or call another AAA driver to help.
Gosule then accepted a ride from Gentile.
In court papers, AAA says Cubellis had no reason to believe Gosule was in danger. She was in a busy parking lot at the Sagamore Rotary with restaurants, a gas station and a fire station nearby. When he pulled into the parking lot, he saw Gosule talking and sharing a cell phone with two men -- Gentile and a mechanic friend Gentile had called to look at the woman's car.
AAA says Gosule could have taken a taxi or had a family member come pick her up.
In a statement, a spokesman for AAA Southern New England called Gosule's death a "terrible tragedy."
"Our hearts go out to Melissa Gosule's family and friends," said Robert Murray. "In our history, we have never seen a case like this. We believe the auto club will be properly and completely exonerated."
Paul Martinek, editor in chief of Lawyers Weekly USA, a national legal newspaper, said the lawsuit was initially considered a long shot, but some of the claims could resonate with a jury.
"Proving that this was a foreseeable danger is a huge challenge -- that AAA could have foreseen that a motorist would have accepted a ride from a total stranger and then be killed by that total stranger," Martinek said.
"But when you read these things about how AAA holds itself out as a protector of motorists and basically tries to get business by representing itself as a service that motorists need in part because it can be dangerous when your car breaks down, you start to see the lawsuit in a different light."