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VAN VOORHIS v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

January 8, 1965

Mildred L. VAN VOORHIS and John H. Van Voorhis, Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, a municipal corporation, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CURRAN

The basic facts are that on January 22, 1960, plaintiff Mildred L. Van Voorhis was injured in an automobile accident which occurred at the intersection of Michigan and South Dakota Avenues, N.E., in the District of Columbia. The automobile which she was operating came in collision with a Fire Department truck owned by the District of Columbia, which was operating as an emergency vehicle in response to a fire alarm. Plaintiff John H. Van Voorhis is Mildred's husband and sues for loss of consortium.

On September 8, 1961, plaintiffs filed the instant lawsuit alleging that the suit was filed pursuant to the provisions of 'The District of Columbia Employee Non-Liability Act', Public Law 86-654, 74 Stat. 519, approved by the 86th Congress on July 14, 1960, effective thirty days later, August 14, 1960, which Act is to be found in Section 1-921 et seq., D.C.Code, 1961 Edition.

 Since the Court finds that the defense of governmental immunity would be dispositive of this case in the absence of the District of Columbia Employee Non-Liability Act, the central question then is whether or not this Act or the law that existed at the time of the accident, namely, January 22, 1960, determines the legal responsibilities of the parties in this lawsuit.

 It is the plaintiffs' contention that the Act was intended by Congress to have a retroactive effect and was intended to apply not only to all civil actions seeking to recover money damages instituted after the effective date, August 14, 1960, but also to suits pending against the District and its employees on the effective date of the Act. This contention is rested on Sec. 6 of the Act which provides:

 It is the defendant's contention that, according to the Barrick *fn1" and Gibbs *fn2" cases decided by the Municipal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, now the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, this Act cannot be applied retroactively to accidents arising out of the operation of an emergency vehicle on an emergency run.

 This Court, however, sees nothing inconsistent in the Barrick and Gibbs cases with the position taken by the plaintiff here. In the Barrick case, the owner of a parked car was struck by an ambulance owned by the District of Columbia. Barrick, the owner of the car, then sued Swenson, the driver of the ambulance, in the Municipal Court, now the District of Columbia Court of General Sessions, to recover for the damages done. From an adverse judgment, Barrick and his insurer appealed, pointing out:

 '* * * that when the accident occurred on January 18, 1959, they were immediately vested with the common-law right to sue the driver and prove only ordinary negligence against him to recover damages. By passage of the Act eighteen months after the accident occurred, however, they were divested of their right to sue the driver and forced to proceed against the District in a suit that required them to prove gross negligence.' Barrick et al. v. District of Columbia, supra, 173 A.2d p. 375.

 Judge Hood, writing for the Court held, 'As the effect of the D.C. Employee Non-Liability Act is to retroactively divest appellants of their common-law right of action to recover against the ambulance driver on proof of ordinary negligence and allows recovery against the District of Columbia only on proof of gross negligence, we are forced to declare that the Act in its application to the facts of this case results in an unconstitutional deprivation of appellants' property right.'(Emphasis supplied.)

 Gibbs was decided on the same rationale as Barrick. In that case, too, the statute was enacted after the accident (five months) and to apply it retroactively would have deprived the plaintiff of a vested right.

 Barrick and Gibbs hold only that Sec. 3 and Sec. 6 do not apply to accidents occurring before the effective date of the Act, insofar as they require a plaintiff not to sue the District employee, and limits his right to recover against the District only for gross negligence in the operation of an emergency vehicle on an emergency run.

 In the present suit, retroactive application would not unconstitutionally deprive the plaintiffs of a vested right because their cause of action is not against the driver of the fire truck, but against the District of Columbia.

 The Constitution does not forbid the creation of new rights to attain a permissible legislative intent, *fn3" and this new right ...


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