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Majeska v. District of Columbia

December 19, 2002

MARILYN MAJESKA, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-3234-96) (Hon. Wendell P. Gardner, Jr., Trial Judge)

Before Ruiz, Glickman and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge

Argued November 5, 2002

This is a negligence case in which the trial court granted the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law. Appellant, Marilyn Majeska, contends that the trial court erred. We agree and reverse and remand for a new trial.

I.

On July 31, 1995, Ms. Majeska was involved in an automobile accident when a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) bus struck the side of her vehicle as she was crossing through the intersection of T and Water Streets, S.W. in Washington, D.C. Traffic was controlled in this intersection by two stop signs located on each side of T Street, which required traffic on T Street to stop before proceeding through the intersection. There were no stop signs restricting the flow of traffic on Water Street. Majeska was driving east on T Street heading towards the intersection on her way to work. It is undisputed that the stop sign that would have restricted Majeska from entering the intersection was missing. As Majeska entered the intersection her car was broadsided by a WMATA bus. Majeska suffered serious physical injuries and had no memory of the accident.

Majeska brought suit against the District of Columbia claiming that the District was negligent in failing to maintain the stop sign and that this negligence was the proximate cause of her accident. *fn1 After the close of all evidence, but before a jury verdict, the District moved for judgment as a matter of law. The trial court granted the motion after concluding that Majeska did not establish that the missing stop sign was the proximate cause of her car accident. Majeska now appeals the trial court's decision.

II.

We review a motion for judgment as a matter of law by applying the same standard as the trial court. Pazmino v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 638 A.2d 677, 678 (D.C. 1994). "A [motion for judgment as a matter of law] is proper only if there is no evidentiary foundation, including all rational inferences from the evidence, by which a reasonable juror could find for the party opposing the motion, considering all the evidence in the light most favorable to that party." Id. (citations omitted). When "viewing the evidence, the court 'must take care to avoid weighing the evidence, passing on the credibility of witnesses or substituting its judgment for that of the jury.' If it is possible to derive conflicting inferences from the evidence, the trial judge should allow the case to go to the jury." Id. (citations omitted). "The jury, however, may not be allowed to engage in idle speculation. 'Speculation is not the province of a jury, for the courts of this jurisdiction have emphasized the distinction between the logical deduction and mere conjecture.'" Jones v. Safeway Stores, Inc., 314 A.2d 459, 460-01 (D.C. 1974).

The primary issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred in granting the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law after concluding that Majeska failed to establish that the District of Columbia's failure to replace a missing stop sign was the proximate cause of her injuries. "Proximate cause is generally a factual issue to be resolved by the jury," however, it becomes a question of law "when the evidence adduced at trial will not support a rational finding of proximate cause." Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., et al., v. Davis, 606 A.2d 165, 170 (D.C. 1992) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Automobile collisions at street intersections nearly always present questions of fact. The credibility of witnesses must be passed on, conflicting testimony must be weighed, and inference must be drawn. From this conflict and uncertainty the trier of facts, whether judge or jury, must determine the ultimate facts of the case. Only in exceptional cases will questions of negligence, contributory negligence, and proximate cause pass from the realm of fact to one of law. District of Columbia v. Carlson, 793 A.2d 1285, 1288 (D.C. 2002) (quoting Shu v. Basinger, 57 A.2d 295, 295-96 (D.C. 1948)).

"Proximate cause has two components: 'cause-in-fact' and a 'policy element' which limits a defendant's liability when the chain of events leading to the plaintiff's injury is unforeseeable or 'highly extraordinary' in retrospect." Carlson, 793 A.2d at 1288 (citation omitted). Based on the evidence presented at trial, a rational juror could find both that the missing stop sign was the cause-in-fact of the accident and that the accident was a foreseeable result of the missing stop sign. Therefore, the question should have been one for the jury.

A. Cause-in-Fact

When determining whether the missing stop sign was the "cause-in-fact" of the accident, the plaintiff is not required to prove causation to a certainty, rather, this court applies the Restatement of Torts' "substantial factor" test. "The Restatement says that 'the actor's negligent conduct is a legal cause of harm to another if . . . his conduct is a substantial factor in bringing ...


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