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Dist. of Columbia v. Harris

April 12, 2001


Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Terry and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wagner, Chief Judge

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

Hon. Ann O'Regan Keary, Trial Judge

Argued October 21, 1997

On June 9, 1992, Tezia Allen, who was not quite two years old, was beaten to death by her mother's live-in male companion, Eustus Smith. Smith was convicted of criminal charges arising out of the murder. At about the same time, Tezia's brother, Vann Allen, was the victim of physical abuse in the home. The children's father, Van Harris, on behalf of Vann and as personal representative of Tezia's estate, filed a complaint for damages against the District of Columbia and Eustus Smith related to Tezia's death and Vann's injuries. A jury returned a verdict for the estate in the amount of $250,000 and for Vann in the amount of $150,000. The District argues for reversal on the principal ground that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the evidence failed to establish negligence on its part which would render it liable for the intervening criminal acts of Smith. Alternatively, the District contends that Harris failed to present expert testimony which was required to establish the standard of care. It also argues that the damages awarded to the estate and for the minor child, Vann, were excessive and that as to Vann, the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that his injuries were proximately caused by the District. We affirm the judgment in favor of the estate against the District, but reverse the judgment against the District as to Vann's claims.


A. Factual Background

The evidence at trial showed that Harris went to the home of the children's mother to pick up the children for a visit on or about May 19, 1992. According to Harris, the home was filthy, and he noticed "three silver [dollar] size bruises on [Tezia's] head . . . [o]n her forehead and on the right cheek. . . . She had like three silver dollar size blotches." He questioned the children's mother about the bruises, and she responded that Tezia had fallen out of the bed. Later, when he undressed and bathed the children, Harris noticed a "hand size blotch in the middle of [Tezia's] chest," small scratches over her chest, stomach and back, and two additional silver dollar shaped bruises on her lower back. Harris found similar scratches on Vann's chest and back. When he asked Vann about these injuries, he responded "my daddy at home, belts us a lot."

Harris returned the children to their mother a few days later and went "downtown" immediately afterwards to report the children's condition. He said that he did not keep the children with him because the mother had custody, he thought she would complain to the police if he did, and he feared being charged with kidnaping. Harris testified that he went into two to three different buildings before being directed to one where he could report child abuse. Harris spoke to Phyllis Ferguson, a supervisor at "Child Welfare and Paternity," to whom he reported that the children were neglected and abused. He testified that he told her about the blotches on their bodies, his son's statement about the abuse, and the condition of their home, which he described in testimony as filthy. Harris said that he spoke with Ms. Ferguson fifteen to twenty times over a one month period seeking assistance. Mr. Harris also contacted the Metropolitan Police Department regarding his concerns.

The deposition testimony of Detective Cervantiz Burke of the Metropolitan Police Department, who subsequently became involved in the investigation, was read into evidence at trial. According to her testimony, she went to the children's home on May 28th to investigate. There, she interviewed the children's mother, who denied Harris' allegations and said that she had not seen him since January. Although she had no specific recollection of removing the children's clothing to examine them, Detective Burke stated that "I would have had to look to find out if they had marks or bruises," and the report stated that "the examination of the Respondent and sibling didn't reveal any marks or bruises." When shown a photograph of Vann's hand taken after Tezia was found dead, showing a burn, Detective Burke stated that had the hand appeared like that during her visit to the home, she would have taken the children. The detective concluded that the allegations were unfounded, and the investigation was closed.

Smith was in the home when Detective Burke investigated, and he testified about the conditions there at the time and the manner in which the detective performed her investigation. Smith testified that the mother returned home from work early and started to clean in anticipation of the detective's arrival, but Detective Burke arrived within a few minutes. According to Smith, Detective Burke remained in the apartment for about fifteen to twenty minutes. She did not go into the bedroom or the kitchen, although one could see the kitchen from where the detective was standing. Smith testified that she did go into the bathroom, which "was filthy." He said, "[s]he came back checked the kids then she asked two questions and that was it." Smith stated that the questions were whether he lived in the apartment and whether the mother was on welfare. Smith testified that the detective did not speak to the children privately or ask them any questions, even though Vann was old enough to respond and could speak well. Smith described the detective's inspection of the children in this way:

She looked like she was rushing to check them and go ahead and go, do whatever she had to do. When she did they were standing side by side, . . . . What she did she just lift the shirt up, see what was there and that was it. Checked Tezia the same way and that was it and she went on about her business.

Smith testified that she never looked at Vann's hand, which had a burn on it which had been there for a couple of days. *fn1 He said that Detective Burke examined Tezia's back, but never asked about a bruise that was on her back, which Smith said resulted from the mother striking the child with a paint brush. Eleven days later, on June 9, Tezia Allen was beaten to death by Smith.

The parties stipulated to certain facts which were presented to the jury. First, they stipulated that "it is undisputed that Tezia Allen was beaten [to] death by ...

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