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Crenshaw v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

May 18, 1999

CHRISTA CRENSHAW, APPELLANT,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, SCHINDLER ELEVATOR CORPORATION, APPELLEES.



Before Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Washington, Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. *fn**

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Peter H. Wolf, Motions Judge)

Argued April 29, 199

Washington, Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia:

This appeal is from a grant of summary judgment to Appellees, Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) and Schindler Elevator Corporation (Schindler) (collectively "Appellees"). The Plaintiff/Appellant, Christa Crenshaw ("Crenshaw"), alleged that she was injured in a fall from an escalator at the D.C. Stadium Armory Metro Station when the escalator on which she was riding jerked violently. The Metrorail Station and the escalator in question are owned and operated by Appellee Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Appellee Schindler Elevator Corporation maintained certain aspects of the escalator pursuant to a maintenance contract with WMATA.

Crenshaw filed suit on November 4, 1996, against WMATA and Schindler in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Following the close of discovery both WMATA and Schindler filed motions for summary judgment. On December 19, 1997, the Honorable Peter H. Wolf heard oral argument on the motions and granted summary judgment for both WMATA and Schindler. The case was dismissed in its entirety with prejudice. Crenshaw then noted this appeal. *fn1

The trial Judge granted the Appellees' Motions for Summary Judgment after finding that Crenshaw failed to present evidence sufficient to raise a material issue of fact as to the negligence of Appellees. The trial court reached its decision after Crenshaw failed to offer expert testimony establishing the standard of care required of the Appellees, any deviation from the standard of care by the Appellees, or the cause of the escalator accident. The trial court determined that without such evidence, Crenshaw could not prove that the series of jerks which allegedly caused her to fall was an event that would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence and accordingly found that Crenshaw's evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to her, was legally insufficient to prove the negligence of either Appellee.

Crenshaw contends on appeal that the trial court erred in granting Appellees' motions for summary judgment because the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies to the circumstances involved in her accident and establishes a prima facie claim of negligence sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment, even in the absence of expert testimony. Specifically Crenshaw claims that when she first stepped onto the escalator, the escalator was operating smoothly. After the escalator descended three or four stair lengths, the escalator made a jerking motion, causing Crenshaw to tighten her grip on the escalator rail. Then, according to Crenshaw, there was a loud noise and the escalator began jerking more violently causing Crenshaw to fall.

In reviewing the trial court's order granting summary judgment, this court makes an independent review of the record, Scrimgeour v. Magazine, 429 A.2d 187 (D.C. 1981), and makes its own determination of whether granting the motion was warranted. Lee v. Jones, 632 A.2d 113 (D.C. 1993). This court is not bound by the findings of the trial court. Franklin Inv. Co. v. Huffman, 393 A.2d 119 (D.C. 1978). Rather, the court must determine whether there was any issue of fact pertinent to the ruling and also whether the substantive law was correctly applied. Burch v. Amsterdam Corp., 366 A.2d 1079 (D.C. 1976). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Cellular Radio Corp. v. OKI Am., Inc., 664 A.2d 357 (D.C. 1995).

Our review of the record compels us to agree with the trial Judge's findings that Crenshaw failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise a material issue of fact with respect to the negligence of the Appellees and that Crenshaw failed to produce sufficient evidence to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to establish such negligence as a matter of law. In fact, the undisputed evidence in this case was that the escalator was operating smoothly both before and after the alleged incident and that the escalator had been maintained in accordance with its maintenance schedule.

Res ipsa loquitur is a doctrine that permits the jury to infer a lack of due care from the mere occurrence of an accident. Otis Elevator Co. v. Henderson, 514 A.2d 784 (D.C. 1986). However, "[it] is a powerful doctrine which should be applied with caution in a negligence action so that the mere happening of an accident will not permit the inference of a defendant's liability." Id. Res ipsa loquitur may only be invoked where the plaintiff demonstrates that:

"(1) [the occurrence is] of the kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence;

(2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the control (exclusive or ...


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