Monday, December 1, 2014

A Picture Is Still Worth A Thousand Words: Contradicting Evidence Won’t Always Mean a Trial

In the recent case of Hall v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 2014 WL 3746483, Plaintiff Tonya Hall (“Hall”) brought suit again the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) alleging negligence arising out of an incident in which she was a passenger on a bus operated by WMATA.  Specifically, Hall claimed that as she was exiting a bus, the driver closed the door on her in a negligent fashion such that it pushed her forward, causing her to fall and ultimately sustain injury. 

After exchanging some discovery, WMATA filed a motion for summary judgment.  Generally, a motion for summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine dispute as to the facts of the case; therefore, a judge can make a ruling by applying those undisputed facts to the law as it exists. 

In its motion, WMATA submitted a video of the incident that had been retrieved from the bus DVR system.  WMATA argued that the video, which was certified by affidavit to be authentic and accurate, showed Hall’s foot catching as she stepped from the bus which caused her to trip and fall, without any negligence whatsoever on the part of the driver. 

This video directly contradicted the assertions of Plaintiff Hall – both in her Complaint and in her version of the events through her Answers to Interrogatories and deposition testimony.  While summary judgment often is not appropriate where there are disputes regarding the facts of the case, as in virtually every area of the law there are exceptions. 

The United States Supreme Court has previously stated that “[w]hen opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for the purpose of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).  That is, when there is evidence, like video footage, that is not open to multiple interpretations, and it contradicts assertions based on personal perception, the court will accept “the facts in the light depicted by the videotape.” Id. at 381.   
In this case, the authenticity of the video was not challenged and the Judge determined that the only credible interpretation of the video was that Hall fell prior to reaching the closing doors and, therefore, could not have been pushed by their closing.  Specifically, the Judge opined:

 “[T]he video clearly depicts Hall…falling prior to reaching the doors, which already were closing…They did not close on Hall or immediately behind her as she was standing in the doorway.  Nor did they cause her to fall…[I]t is not clear from the video whether Plaintiff tripped…[b]ut whether Plaintiff tripped is not a material fact: Plaintiff based her negligence claim on the allegation that Defendant shut its doors on her, causing her to fall […][t]hus the material fact is whether the bus doors shut on Plaintiff and caused her fall.”

Hall v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., No. PWG-13-937, 2014 WL 3746483, at *3 (D. Md. July 30, 2014).

Accordingly, the Judge determined that the material fact at issue was whether the bus doors closed on Hall and caused her to fall. He found that in light of the video evidence Hall’s version of events held no believability and he granted WMATA’s motion.

Though this is not the first time the courts have relied on video evidence to dispose of a case before it reaches the trial stage, it is a reminder that when there exists evidence that clearly discredits one party’s portrayal of the facts, it is not always necessary to proceed with the time and expense associated with having a jury decide the matter. At RSRM, we understand the importance of resolving cases in a manner that is the most beneficial to our clients.  In an age where security, traffic and cell phone cameras are everywhere, we work to investigate matters quickly to preserve evidence, so that it can be used to aid in reaching a quick and efficient resolution of claims and cases.  

Contributed by Lauren Seldomridge

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