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Stewart-Veal v. District of Columbia

April 13, 2006

SHIRLEY A. STEWART-VEAL, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-7440-04) (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).

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

Submitted March 27, 2006

Before FARRELL, REID and FISHER, Associate Judges.

Appellant Shirley A. Stewart-Veal (Ms. Stewart-Veal) appeals from a judgment of the trial court denying her motion for reconsideration of the dismissal of her amended complaint for negligence against appellee District of Columbia. An earlier complaint, which was dismissed without prejudice, had alleged claims for intentional torts and negligence. On appeal, she contends that the trial court erred (1) by concluding that her amended complaint for negligence was barred by the one-year statute of limitations for certain intentional torts, and (2) by not applying the relation-back doctrine to revive her original complaint covering claims for intentional torts. We hold that (1) Ms. Stewart-Veal's amended complaint for negligence contained the elements of a negligence cause of action based on the District's alleged negligent hiring, training, and supervision of its police officers, and thus, this negligence claim should not have been dismissed; and (2) the relation-back doctrine is inapplicable in this case, because the intentional tort claims contained in the original complaint filed by appellant in May 2003, did not survive the dismissal of that complaint.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL SUMMARY

The record before us shows that on May 30, 2003, Ms. Stewart-Veal filed a "complaint for false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, emotional infliction of mental distress, negligence, and willful and malicious destruction of official government documents" (CA4508-03). The complaint alleged that Ms. Stewart-Veal, a licensed electrical contractor, was performing work on November 12, 2002, in the 900 block of F Street, in the Northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia, when the owner of the club at which she was performing renovation work "cursed, yelled at, pushed and shoved" her. Someone called the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") and on November 13, 2002, two MPD officers arrived at the site of Ms. Stewart-Veal's work. They apparently had received a version of the November 12 incident from the owner of the club and, according to Ms. Stewart-Veal's complaint, "seemed not to be interested in [her] version of what had happened the previous day. . . ." On June 17, 2004, in response to the District's motion to dismiss the May 2003 complaint, the trial court (the Honorable Mary A. Gooden Terrell) rejected the District's argument that Ms. Stewart-Veal had not provided requisite notice of her lawsuit under D.C. Code § 12-309 (2001), but granted the District's motion to dismiss the complaint "without prejudice . . . for insufficiency of process and . . . for insufficiency of service of process."

On September 29, 2004, Ms. Stewart-Veal filed a "complaint for negligence" in the trial court (CA7440-04), and on November 19, 2004, she filed an "amended complaint for negligence."*fn1 The District filed a "motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment," alleging in essence that Ms. Stewart-Veal's "complaint in substance pleads the tort of false arrest," and hence, "the [one-year] statute of limitations [for claims of false arrest or false imprisonment] bars her complaint." Ms. Stewart-Veal filed an opposition to the District's motion, stating, in part:

The Complaint has been amended to negligence, to become the instant one, so that the pre-existent procedural defect may be cured. The Complaint filed herein has its feature allegations, the same allegations, alleged in the prior dismissed Complaint . . . .

The "relation back" doctrine . . . is founded upon the premise that once litigation involving a particular core of fact has commenced, a defendant is not entitled to the protection afforded by a Statute of Limitations against the subsequent assertion of claims arising out of the events described in the original pleadings . . . .

The trial court (the Honorable Melvin R. Wright) granted the District's motion to dismiss on January 21, 2005, stating that: "Plaintiff's complaint is barred by the statute of limitations, D.C. Code § 12-301 (4), and fails to state a cognizable claim of negligence." Ms. StewartVeal filed a motion for reconsideration on February 4, 2005, indicating that the statute of limitations for personal injury is three years under D.C. Code § 12-301, and thus, her claim for negligence was timely since the underlying incident took place on November 12, 2002.

She further stated that her "Complaint alleging assault and battery, intentional infliction of mental distress, inter alia, was filed on May 30, 2003, . . . [and was] [subsequently dismissed on June 17, 2004, without prejudice on procedural grounds . . . ." The District opposed Ms. Stewart-Veal's motion for reconsideration and, on February 22, 2005, the trial court denied the motion for reconsideration, without explanation. Ms. Stewart-Veal filed a timely notice of appeal.

ANALYSIS

Ms. Stewart-Veal argues that the trial court erred by dismissing her amended complaint for negligence because it properly states a claim for negligence and is not barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to such intentional torts as false arrest; rather, her negligence claim is governed by the three-year statute of limitations. The District contends that Ms. Stewart-Veal's amended complaint is barred by the one-year statute of limitations because it "states, in substance, claims for intentional torts, while characterizing them as negligence."

The trial court apparently dismissed Ms. Stewart-Veal's amended complaint for negligence, pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Therefore, we review this matter de novo. See McCracken v. WallsKaufman, 717 A.2d 346, 350 (D.C. 1998) (citing Fraser v. Gottfried, 636 A.2d 430, 432 n.5 (D.C. 1994)). In a case such as the one before us, "the same course of conduct may support both a claim of assault and battery [or other intentional tort] and a claim of negligence, provided that it is established that the defendant, in the process of engaging in the conduct that included the intentional tort, was also breaching another recognized duty owed to the plaintiff." Id. at 351. The "trial court is not bound by a plaintiff's characterization of an action and . . . use of the terms 'carelessly and negligently,' without more, are conclusory and do not raise a cognizable claim of negligence." District of Columbia v. Chinn, 839 A.2d 701, 708 (D.C. 2003). "In a negligence action, the plaintiff bears ...


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