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Haynesworth v. D.H. Stevens Co.

August 8, 1994


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Rufus G. King, III, Trial Judge)

Before Ferren and King, Associate Judges, and Pryor, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pryor

PRYOR, Senior Judge: In a negligence action involving a pedestrian who slipped and fell on a patch of ice in an alley adjacent to an apartment building, a claim was brought against a plumbing company whose employee, five days before the accident, repaired a broken pipe which had leaked water from the apartment building into the alley. The trial court directed a verdict in favor of the defendant plumbing company. Appealing from this ruling, the pedestrian contends the plumber was negligent in failing to notify the management company that water which had escaped from the broken pipe continued to leak into the alley after his repairs. Finding no error, we affirm.



On a January morning in 1990, William Haynesworth experienced car trouble while driving near his mother's apartment on Missouri Avenue, Northwest, in the District. Haynesworth parked his vehicle on Ninth Street and walked up the alley to the back entrance of his mother's apartment building. He called for road service and returned to his vehicle. When the tow truck arrived, Haynesworth returned to his mother's apartment to retrieve an identification card. As he proceeded down the alley toward the tow truck, Haynesworth slipped and fell on an ice patch which had formed from water seeping through a hole in the exterior wall of an adjacent apartment building managed by Fred A. Smith & Company ("Smith"). Haynesworth was taken by an ambulance to the Washington Hospital Center, where he was treated for a fractured left leg.

Haynesworth filed a negligence action *fn1 against D.H. Stevens & Company ("Stevens"), the plumbing company whose employee made repairs to the broken pipe in the building five days prior to the accident. Because there was no resident manager at the premises, Smith, the property management company, relied upon the tenants to notify it about any maintenance problems within the building. If a tenant complained about plumbing problems, Smith would contact Stevens to perform the repairs. Tenants were also allowed to contact Stevens directly in case of a plumbing emergency. Approximately a week prior to Haynesworth's fall, Stevens received a complaint from a tenant that a boiler in the building was losing water and that the water was leaking from a crawl space into an alley and freezing. A plumber from Stevens responded to the complaint and discovered a broken pipe which had leaked approximately three and a half to four feet of water into the crawl space. The plumber temporarily repaired the broken pipe, and noticed that the water which had already collected in the crawl space was leaking through a small hole in the wall of the building and running into the alley. Although the plumber was aware that water was freezing in the alley, he did not report the problem to either the property management company or the tenants.

At the close of the evidence, the trial Judge concluded that no evidence was introduced establishing that the plumber was negligent in his repairs, or that he had breached any duty which he owed to the pedestrian. As a consequence, he granted Stevens' motion for a directed verdict. Haynesworth filed a timely appeal.


Scope of Review

At the outset, we recognize that a trial court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law if "a party has been fully heard with respect to an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to have found for that party with respect to that issue. . . ." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a)(1). Thus, "a verdict may be directed only if it is clear that the plaintiff has not established a prima facie case." Clement v. Peoples Drug Store, Inc., 634 A.2d 425, 427 (D.C. 1993) (citing Marshall v. District of Columbia, 391 A.2d 1374, 1379 (D.C. 1978)); Sastry v. Coale, 585 A.2d 1324, 1328 (D.C. 1991). In reviewing a directed verdict, we "view the facts, as the trial court was required to, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Washington v. A & H Garcias Trash Hauling Co., 584 A.2d 544, 545 (D.C. 1990) (citing Bauman v. Sragow, 308 A.2d 243, 244 (D.C. 1973)); Lenkin-N Ltd. Partnership v. Nace, 568 A.2d 474, 477 (D.C. 1990); Ceco Corp. v. Coleman, 441 A.2d 940, 944 (D.C. 1982).


Appellant's Theory of the Case

Haynesworth contends there was adequate evidence introduced at trial from which a reasonable jury could find negligence of omission on the part of Stevens and therefore, the trial court erred in granting the motion for a directed verdict. In support of his claim, Haynesworth ...

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