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Gaskins v. District of Columbia Housing Authority

August 3, 2006

CAROLYN GASKINS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA HOUSING AUTHORITY, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-293-03) (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).

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

Argued June 13, 2006

Before FARRELL and GLICKMAN, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Gaskins brought suit for, among other things, wrongful death arising from a fire which occurred in her apartment, owned and operated by defendant-appellee the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA or the Authority). Gaskins' two-year-old granddaughter, in the apartment at the time, died from resulting burns or smoke inhalation, and the amended complaint alleged negligence by DCHA in not preventing the fire.*fn1 Gaskins also sought a declaratory judgment invalidating a $15,000 charge levied against her rental account by DCHA, which contended that she had caused the fire and resulting damage to the apartment. (Additionally, Gaskins alleged a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but later dismissed that count voluntarily.)

On DCHA's motion to dismiss (initially denied) and motion to reconsider, the primary issue before the court was whether, as DCHA asserted, Gaskins had failed to give the Authority timely written notice as required by D.C. Code § 6-205 (a) (2001), a prerequisite to maintaining her suit for damage or personal injury.*fn2 The trial judge ultimately concluded, by analogy to settled law construing D.C. Code § 12-309 (notice as a condition of suit against the District of Columbia), that Gaskins had not given the notice required by § 6-205 (a), in particular that she failed to state a "cause" of any injury or damage attributable to fault by the Authority. The judge therefore dismissed the complaint as to all counts. (Technically, as he recognized, he was granting summary judgment because he had "considered matters outside of the pleadings").

On appeal, Gaskins argues that she complied with § 6-205 (a), asserting that it does not - any more than § 12-309 - make "precise exactness [of notice] . . . absolutely essential with respect to the details." Romer v. District of Columbia, 449 A.2d 1097, 1101 (D.C. 1982) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). For the reasons that follow, we sustain the judgment against Gaskins with respect to her counts alleging negligence, wrongful death, and a survival action. Even viewing together the several documents that she contends "disclose[d] . . . the factual cause of the injury and a reasonable basis for [DCHA] anticipating legal action as a consequence," Washington v. District of Columbia, 429 A.2d 1362, 1366 (D.C. 1981) (en banc), her notice did not provide the necessary "causal link between [DCHA] and [her] injury." Id.at 1367. She did not, in other words, give the Authority reason to anticipate and investigate a possible claim by her that it had caused the death of her grandchild or damage to her property.

At the same time, we find no basis on the present record for dismissal of Gaskins' separate request for a declaratory judgment that she was not liable for the $15,000 in repairs DCHA had assessed against her. That count - in essence, as the judge recognized, "a defense to the claim made by the [Authority]" - did not allege injury or damage to Gaskins at the hands of DCHA, and thus did not depend on prior compliance with § 6-205 (a). Accordingly, we vacate the judgment and remand for further consideration of that count.

I.

The fire broke out in Gaskins' apartment on June 1, 2002, and fire investigation and police reports prepared the same day described the accident. DCHA's Fire Safety Officer Wood arrived at the scene while the fire was in progress. His report of investigation stated that "[t]he point of fire origin was determined to be an electrical cord attached to the window air conditioner"; the cord "appeared to have overheated (based on burn patterns) igniting the living room sofa and nearby combustibles," with the fire or smoke then spreading throughout the apartment. Gaskins told Wood that she had "tried extinguishing the fire with a pillow after she pulled the air conditioner plug out of the wall socket when she noticed the air conditioner plug was on fire." Wood cited "reports that [Gaskins had] kept the air conditioner unit running almost 24 hours a day."

Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers inspected the scene and filed a similar report of investigation, which cited Gaskins' statement that "her air conditioner . . . [had] started sparking at the plug in the wall," then caught fire and ignited the sofa. Gaskins tried to extinguish the fire but could not; she ran out of the apartment with her son, but "[u]pon getting outside . . . realized [the child,] . . . her granddaughter[,] did not make it out."

Based on the fire investigator's report, DCHA notified Gaskins of a damage-charge assessment against her rental account in the amount of $15,000. She retained an attorney and, on October 2, 2002, filed a grievance complaint with the Authority "contest[ing] the charge of $15,000.00 that has been assessed to her rental account for alleged fire damage to her . . . unit." The complaint asked for removal of the charge and for DCHA to provide Gaskins with a copy of the DCHA file and all documents related to the apartment, as well as access to the unit. A letter of the same day from counsel to the Authority confirmed that he "represents Ms. Carolyn Gaskins, who is being assessed $15,000.00 by DCHA for [a] fire that occurred in her former apartment." The letter repeated the requests for the relevant DCHA file and for the property to be made "available for my inspection as soon as practicable." Gaskins simultaneously authorized a release to her attorney of "all records for the fire and fatality occurring on the premises."*fn3

On December 3, 2002, after a conference with Gaskins and her counsel, a DCHA administrator proposed rejection of her request to lift the damage charge, which had been levied "pursuant to the terms of the dwelling lease" and the Authority's judgment that she or someone under her control had caused the accident. The written notice to Gaskins told her that she could request a formal, impartial hearing of the assessment and that if she did not it would become final; but that the failure to request a hearing would not "constitute a waiver of your right thereafter to contest DCHA's disposition of your grievance in an appropriate judicial proceeding." See 14 DCMR § 6303.3 (2004) (failure to request a hearing, while making the DCHA administrator's disposition "final, . . . shall not constitute a waiver of the complainant's right to contest DCHA's actions in an appropriate judicial proceeding").

On January 14, 2003, Gaskins filed suit in Superior Court asking for declaratory relief from the $15,000 assessment and alleging negligence by DCHA for having failed to maintain the rental unit in a safe condition, thereby causing damage to her personal property from the fire. She later amended the complaint by adding counts of wrongful death, a survival action, and violation of 42 ...


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