Friday, April 17, 2015

Partner Andrew Nichols Obtains Defense Verdict

Partner Andrew T. Nichols recently obtained a defense verdict after a two-day jury trial in the Circuit Court for Harford County.  

Plaintiff, a unit owner of a condominium, slipped and fell on ice the sidewalk in front of a building in the condominium community during the two snow storms that culminated in “Snowmageddon” in 2010.  Plaintiff sued the condominium association, property management company and snow removal contractor, alleging negligence.  Mr. Nichols, representing the condominium association and property management company, presented evidence that while the condominium association had notice of the potential for ice formation in the area where Plaintiff fell, there had been no prior falls in that area, and that Plaintiff had similar notice regarding the potential for ice formation.

After twenty-two minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict, finding no negligence on the part of the defendants.  Congratulations to Mr. Nichols on his hard work! 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Robinson v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 77 F.3d 33 (2014).

On April 16, 2008, Plaintiff, Darlene Robinson boarded a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) bus. As she was walking towards the back of the bus looking for a seat, the bus driver, Ronald Bumpass, began to drive away from the bus stop. Shortly thereafter, the bus approached an intersection and Mr. Bumpass hit the brakes, causing the bus to jerk. As the bus decelerated, Plaintiff lost her grip on a handrail and fell in a twisting motion, breaking her leg.

Plaintiff sued WMATA, Bumpass’ employer, alleging that Bumpass’ negligent operation of the bus caused her injury. At trial, Plaintiff tried to prove Bumpass’ negligence by showing that he violated WMATA’s standard operation procedures (“SOPs”), and that the “jerk” caused by Bumpass’ application of the brakes was of such extraordinary force that his negligence could be inferred merely from its occurrence.

In support of her claim that Bumpass was negligent based on his violation of WMATA’s SOPs, Plaintiff presented expert testimony of Dr. Carl Berkowitz, a public transportation safety engineer. Dr. Berkowitz testified that various federal agencies fund research studies to address transportation safety issues, and that the results and recommendations from those studies emanate and filter down to all the major transit agencies, including WMATA. Dr. Berkowitz testified that those results and recommendations provide the foundation for nationally agreed-upon safety standards that all major cities in the United States, including the District of Columbia, have implemented.

Dr. Berkowitz identified two WMATA SOPs relevant to this case. First, a WMATA bus driver is required to check his or her rearview mirror before departing from a stop to confirm that all passengers are “secure” and “prepared for vehicle movement.” Second, a WMATA bus driver is instructed to start the bus “gradually” and stop the bus “smoothly.” When counsel for WMATA asked Dr. Berkowitz where and when these national standards for safe bus travel were articulated, he stated that they were developed from research 3,500 years ago that began with the Hammurabi Code long before the development of modern transportation.

Plaintiff also called Bumpass to the stand to establish that he violated the SOPs that Dr. Berkowitz identified. In his testimony, Bumpass admitted that he did not check his mirror before leaving the stop that morning because he assumed Plaintiff had sat down by the time he had started driving.

In support of her second theory that Bumpass’ negligence was shown by the fact that his braking caused the bus to jerk with extraordinary force, Plaintiff testified that the bus was going “fast, faster than normal buses” and that it was “jerking and then there was an abrupt stop.” She testified that it was the abrupt stop that caused her to lose her grip on the handrail and fall.
Lastly, Plaintiff also presented the expert testimony of Dr. Jamie Williams, a biomedical engineer, to explain how the force of the bus’ movements caused her to lose her grip on the handrail and fall down. Dr. Williams was able to estimate the grip strength of a woman of a similar age and weight as Plaintiff, but she was unable to testify as to Plaintiff’s actual grip strength on the date in question.

At the close of Plaintiff’s case, and again at the conclusion of all of the evidence, WMATA moved for judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, subsection (a). The trial court reserved ruling on the motion and submitted the case to the jury, which returned a verdict for Plaintiff and awarded her $404,713.28 in damages. The Court then granted WMATA’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), rejecting Plaintiff’s effort to prove negligence through the violation of WMATA’s standard operating procedures. The Court concluded that Dr. Berkowitz failed to show that either of the two SOPs reflected national standards of care, there was no evidence of a causal connection between the driver’s failure to check the internal mirror and Plaintiff’s injury, the gradual start and smooth stop SOP could not serve as a negligence standard, and Plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient to show that the bus’ jerk was of an extraordinary force. Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the grant of the Rule 50(b) motion and initially noted two theories upon which a Plaintiff may recover in a bus negligence case against WMATA. First, the Court stated that a plaintiff may present direct evidence of negligence. Alternatively, the Court stated that a plaintiff may offer circumstantial evidence of negligence by showing that the driver caused a jerk “so violent or extraordinary that it could not have been consistent with safe operation of the bus.” The Court then noted that the question on appeal was whether Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find negligence under either theory.

The Fourth Circuit stated that, under applicable District of Columbia law, a plaintiff seeking to prove his or her case through direct evidence of negligence has the burden of establishing three elements: (1) “the applicable standard of care; (2) a deviation from that standard by the defendant; and (3) a causal relationship between the deviation and the injury suffered.” Varner v. District of Columbia, 891 A.2d 260, 265 (D.C. 2006). The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding under this theory, on the basis that Plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proof because she failed to establish that either of the SOPs constituted an applicable standard of care, and she failed to show that the deviation from the check-your-mirror SOP caused her injury.

The Court then looked at the only remaining issue, whether Plaintiff provided enough circumstantial evidence to prove negligence. Because jerks occur often in the normal operation of a bus, the Court acknowledged that a plaintiff may only recover by showing that the jerk or sudden start was of such unusual and extraordinary force that it could not reasonably be said to have happened in the ordinary operation of the vehicle. The Court cited to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which has said that such unusual and extraordinary force “cannot be inferred from mere descriptive adjectives and conclusions’ alone.” See Boyko v. WMATA, 468 A.2d 582, 584 (D.C. 1983). Plaintiff’s testimony that the bus was moving “fast, faster than normal buses” did not demonstrate that the operation of the bus was inconsistent with the safe or proper operation of the bus, nor that there was a sudden “extraordinary” stop. The Court also found that the testimony of Dr. Williams was not enough to save the case because Dr. Williams did not treat, or even speak to, Plaintiff in relation to this incident. The Court found that Dr Williams’ testimony was not based on any actual knowledge about the Plaintiff; rather it was based on the assumption that Plaintiff was holding the handrail with the maximum grip strength of a woman of similar age and weight. The Court stated that Dr. Williams’ testimony required the jury to speculate about the actual force of the stop, and that the sufficiency of the evidence to support a claim for relief may not be established by jury speculation. Ultimately, The Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.  

Ultimately this case recognizes three important points to remember in case handling.  First, while violation of a SOP can sometimes be useful as evidence of negligence the violation of the SOP must be a proximate cause of the damages complained of.  In this case no causal connection was established between the SOP and accident.  Accordingly, violation did not matter for evidentiary purposes.  Second, the jerk of the bus needed to be of extraordinary force to support a fining against the WMATA and the descriptions by the Plaintiff were insufficient to demonstrate the required force.   Accordingly it is important to remember that a Plaintiff’s account of an accident, even if uncontradicted, won’t always be enough to reach the negligence standard.  Finally, expert testimony that takes into consideration someone similarly situated without addressing the specific plaintiff at hand calls for speculation by the jury and will not be sufficient to support a claim for relief.