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08/27/90 ANNIE MAE GASKINS v. DISTRICT COLUMBIA

August 27, 1990

ANNIE MAE GASKINS, APPELLANT
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. George W. Mitchell, Trial Judge

Rogers, Chief Judge, and Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Farrell. Concurring opinion by Chief Judge Rogers, at 10.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

This is an appeal from a January 5, 1989 order of the Superior Court granting the District of Columbia's (District's) motion for summary judgment and dismissing with prejudice appellant's negligence claim against the District. Appellant and plaintiff below, Annie Mae Gaskins, had allegedly been injured when she tripped and fell on an eroded portion of the sidewalk on M Street in Northeast Washington, D.C. Although the trial court did not specify the grounds for its decision, it apparently agreed with the District that Ms. Gaskins had failed to describe the location of the injury with adequate specificity and did not, therefore, meet the notice requirements of D.C. Code § 12-309 (1989). *fn1 Appellant contends that, while the notice she furnished the District may not have identified the place of the injury exactly, precision of that kind is not required by a statute intended to give the District threshold notice of a claim and an opportunity to conduct a reasonable investigation. We agree that the notice was sufficient under the standards enunciated by our decisions, and reverse.

I.

On October 3, 1985, Ms. Gaskins allegedly suffered a broken arm when she tripped and fell on an eroded portion of a sidewalk while walking to a mailbox at the corner of M Street and Bladensburg Road, N.E. On November 6, 1985, Ernest W. Mclntosh, Ms. Gaskins' attorney, notified the Mayor's office of the accident and the District's potential liability. The letter gave Ms. Gaskins' home address and stated that it was "written in compliance with D.C. Code § 12-309 . . . to inform [the District] of the potential liability. . . for a claim against it by Ms. Annie Mae Gaskins." Regarding the location of the accident, the notice stated:

On or about October 3, 1985, during the evening, Ms. Gaskins was going to the mailbox at the corner of M Street and Bladensburg Road, N.E. She tripped over an eroded section of the sidewalk of M street, fell and broke her arm.

The parties agree that the distance between Ms. Gaskins' home and the mailbox in question is approximately 150 feet.

On March 3, 1986, John J. Bourbon, an investigator for the District, sent a letter to attorney McIntosh stating that, after inspecting "the general area near the subject mailbox," he was unable to locate the eroded portion of the sidewalk. He therefore requested that the location of the fall be identified "through proximity to a fixed object." Mr. McIntosh did not respond to this request. *fn2 Gaskins filed suit against the District on September 19, 1988.

II.

As we have repeatedly held, D.C. Code § 12-309 is designed to "(1) protect the District of Columbia against unreasonable claims and (2 to give reasonable notice to the District of Columbia so that the facts may be ascertained and. if possible, deserving claims adjusted and meritless claims resisted." Pitts v. District of Columbia, 391 A.2d 803, 807 (D.C. 1978). "Absent such notice, claims might he brought within the statute of limitations but so long after the event that it [would be] impossible for the District of Columbia to obtain evidence for use in litigation which may result.'" Shehyn v. District of Columbia, 392 A.2d 1008, 1013 (D.C. 1978) (citation omitted). See also Romer v. District of Columbia, 449 A.2d 1097, 1101 (D.C. 1982) (notice requirement allows District to "quickly investigate before evidence bec lost or witnesses unavailable, correct hazardous or potentially hazardous conditions, and settle meritorious claims"); Washington v. District of Columbia, 429 A.2d 1362, 1365 (D.C. 1981) (en banc).

Section 12-309 "is to be strictly construed and compliance with notice requirement is mandatory." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Since notice under the statute is a "condition precedent" to filing suit against the District, we have held that it is not given merely by the filing of a complaint within the six-month statutory period. Campbell v. District of Columbia, 568 A.2d 1076, 1078 (D.C. 1990). On the other hand, "with respect to the details of the statement [giving notice], precise exactness is not absolutely essential," and "liberal construction of the statute's requirements is in harmony with its purpose." Washington, supra, 429 A.2d at 1365 & n.9, 1367-68 n.19 (emphasis in original; citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Notice under the statute need only "furnish [] a reasonable guide for inspection," Dixon v. District of Columbia, 168 A.2d 905, 907 (D.C. 1961), and "provide an early warning to District of Columbia officials regarding litigation likely to occur in the future." Pitts v. District of Columbia, supra, 391 A.2d at 807. As we stated in Washington, supra, in rejecting the District's claim that the notice given there failed the "cause" and "circumstances" requirements:

It may be true that the greater the detail provided in a letter, the more easily the District can identify its nature and decide how best to deploy its limited investigative resources. But the purpose of § 12-309 is not to help the District to evaluate known claims by requiring notice complete enough to state a formal cause of action. The statute, rather, was designed to protect the District of Columbia against unreasonable claims and to give the District officials reasonable notice of the accident so that the facts may be ascertained and, if possible, the claim adjusted. Put another way, § 12-309 was intended solely to insure the District the opportunity for timely access to all relevant facts about a potential claim, in order to protect the District against an unfair advantage by the eventual claimant.

429 A.2d at 1368 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

In this case, the District does not dispute the pragmatic purpose of the statute --- to furnish the District with "a reasonable guide for inspection," Dixon, supra, and enable it to "conduct a prompt, properly focused investigation of the claim." Washington, supra, 429 A.2d at 1366 (footnote omitted). The District concedes that Ms. Gaskins' notice met the time, cause and circumstance requirements of the statute, and that it narrowed the location of the alleged accident to a 150-foot stretch of sidewalk along M Street, N.E., leading to a mailbox at the corner of M Street and Bladensburg Road. The District also does not ...


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