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Mefford v. District of Columbia

April 15, 1999

CAROLYN MEFFORD, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Before Steadman and Reid, Associate Judges, and King, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, Senior Judge

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Lee Satterfield, Trial Judge)

Argued March 2, 1999

Appellant, Carolyn Mefford, appeals from an order granting summary judgment for the District of Columbia and denying her claim to recover for losses sustained when her property was stolen and destroyed while in the custody of the Metropolitan Police Department's ("MPD") property clerk's office. Mefford contends that the trial Judge erred in concluding: (1) that the District of Columbia was not grossly negligent in maintaining the property clerk's office; and (2) that the District of Columbia was not liable under a theory of vicarious liability. We affirm.

I. Facts

On April 7, 1993, Mefford was arrested for carrying a firearm without a license, carrying unregistered ammunition, and carrying drug paraphernalia. Her property, which included some personal items, *fn1 $3,709 in cash, and $22.04 in unused postage stamps, was placed in the property clerk's office at the MPD's Second District.

Sometime between April 7 and May 19, 1993, Mefford's cash was stolen, and on May 21, 1993, the property clerk's office was set on fire, destroying Mefford's remaining property. Police investigators tentatively concluded that a property clerk, MPD Officer Mark E. Mehlman, stole the money and set fire to the property clerk's office to conceal his crime. Mehlman later committed suicide; his body was found on May 31, 1993 after he had been missing for seven days.

At the time that the money was stolen, MPD procedures required that prisoners' property be placed in a secured room; that a detailed inventory of the property be made; and that all prisoners be provided with a receipt itemizing the property received. Those procedures were followed here. In addition, only six police officers (two property clerks, one relief, and three watch commanders), had a key to the room where the property was stored. Mehlman was one of the property clerks and he had access to the property room. Mehlman, an eighteen-year veteran of the MPD, had received thirty commendations from both the public and his supervisors for his exceptional performance while a member of the MPD; he had no history of a criminal record, substance abuse, or employment problems.

Mefford filed a claim against the District of Columbia in the Small Claims Branch of the Superior Court in August 1996, pursuant to D.C. Code § 4-162 (1994 Repl.). She contended that the District was grossly negligent in maintaining the property clerk's office, or in the alternative, that the District was vicariously liable for the intentional actions of Mehlman. The District moved for summary judgment and Mefford filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.

On July 29, 1997, the trial Judge issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order granting the District's motion for summary judgment and denying Mefford's motion for summary judgment. On the issue of the District's liability, the trial Judge ruled that Mefford had failed to offer expert testimony to establish the applicable standard of care. Alternatively, and assuming that expert testimony was not necessary, the trial Judge concluded that the District's conduct could not rise to the level of gross negligence. On the issue of vicarious liability, the trial Judge concluded that D.C. Code § 4-162 precluded recovery on that theory.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Willis v. Cheek, 387 A.2d 716, 719 (D.C. 1978) (citations omitted). When reviewing an order granting summary judgment "this court conducts an independent review of the record, but the substantive standard is the same as that utilized by the trial court." Drejza v. Vaccaro, 650 A.2d 1308, 1312 (D.C. 1994) (citation omitted). All ...


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