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Wilson v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

December 21, 2006

HELEN WILSON, APPELLANT,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA4638-02) (Hon. James E. Boasberg, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blackburne-rigsby, Associate Judge

Argued October 17, 2006

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and REID and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges.

At issue in this case is whether the trial judge correctly granted appellee Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, overturning a $70,000.00 jury verdict in appellant Helen Wilson's (Ms. Wilson) favor. Appellant filed a complaint against WMATA alleging that while exiting a WMATA bus through the back door she slipped and fell on the steps of the bus and suffered injuries. After the fall, appellant alleged that there was a sticky orange substance, which she believed to be orange soda on her hand. Following a jury trial on June 7-8, 2004, the jury entered a verdict awarding Ms. Wilson $70,000.00. WMATA moved for entry of Judgment as a Matter of Law after Ms. Wilson's case-in-chief, and renewed its motion after the defense rested. Both motions were denied without prejudice. After trial WMATA renewed its Rule 50 (b) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, arguing that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that either WMATA or its' employee caused the alleged hazard or that they had knowledge of any alleged hazard. The trial court granted WMATA's motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Ms. Wilson filed a timely appeal. Concluding that there was insufficient evidence to establish that appellant's fall was caused by an orange substance allegedly on the steps of the bus, we affirm.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Ms. Wilson testified at trial that on Saturday, October 14, 2004, she boarded the U8 WMATA bus with her niece. She described the condition of the bus when she boarded as "filthy . . . dirty [and] nasty." Ms. Wilson testified that she and her niece were on the bus for approximately thirty minutes before they arrived at their stop at Dix Street and Eastern Avenue, S.E. Appellant and her niece exited through the rear door of the bus, Ms. Wilson's niece exited the bus first. Ms. Wilson stated that, "[a]fter I came down the second step and twisted my ankle and slipped and . . . my feet . . . went under me and I just landed this way and that way when I fell out the door . . . [the bus driver] opened the back door and I just fell out." Ms. Wilson testified that she did not attempt to break her fall with her hands, and after she landed on the ground she saw an orange substance on her hand. She described the substance as dry and sticky and stated that it smelled like orange soda. Appellant testified that while she was exiting the bus she was looking straight ahead and did not look down because she was focused on her niece who was in front of her. She did not see the orange soda on the steps before, during, or after her fall.

Ms. Lewis, the WMATA bus operator that day, testified that she picked the bus up on the street at Minnesota Avenue, S. E. and started her route at around 4:00 p.m. Ms. Lewis did not see Ms. Wilson fall but heard her scream. Immediately after the fall, Ms. Lewis got off the bus to investigate and asked Ms. Wilson if she was alright. In response, Ms. Wilson stated that she slipped off the last step of the bus. Ms. Lewis observed the rear steps of the bus after the accident but she did not see an orange sticky substance, or anything else on the rear steps of the bus.

Further, Ms. Lewis testified that she did not inspect the bus when she picked it up, she was aware that passengers often ate and drank on the bus, and that it was common for the bus to become cluttered with trash and debris throughout the day. She testified that throughout the course of the day at the end of each line, all bus drivers were required to inspect the bus. Ms. Lewis testified that she did not conduct an end of the line inspection prior to the incident because she was running behind schedule.

II. TRIAL COURT'S RULING

In reviewing WMATA's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Superior Court Civil R. 50 (b), the trial court gave favorable inferences to plaintiff's testimony at trial. However, the trial court found that Ms. Wilson failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that she slipped on any foreign substance while alighting from the bus. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court noted that Ms. Wilson never looked at the steps or saw any substance before, during, or after her fall, and that she testified that even if she had looked down while alighting, she would not have seen the spot. The trial court reasoned that there was no evidence that there was orange soda on the steps that caused Ms. Wilson's slip and fall and that the orange soda could have come from the ground on to which Ms. Wilson fell, from a step other than the one on which she slipped or even from a different part of the same step. Thus, the trial court found that the evidence at trial only established that Ms. Wilson had orange soda on her hand after the fall. Finally, the trial court concluded that the evidence at trial failed to establish that WMATA had notice that orange soda might have been on the steps.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judgment as a matter law may be properly granted where "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for a party" on an issue. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a)(1); Abebe v. Benitez, 667 A.2d 834, 836 (D.C. 1995); Faniel v. Chesapeake & Potomac Tel. Co. of Maryland, 404 A.2d 147, 150 (D.C. 1979). This court considers de novo whether the evidence was sufficient to go to the jury. WMATA v. Jeanty, 718 A.2d 172, 174 (D.C. 1998). The record must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, who is entitled to the "benefit of every reasonable inference from the evidence." Jeanty, supra, 718 A.2d at 174; Phillips v. District of Columbia, 714 A.2d 768, 772 (D.C. 1998). " [I]t is the responsibility of the jury (and not the judge) to weigh the evidence and to pass upon the credibility of witnesses. If impartial triers of fact could reasonably find the plaintiff 's evidence sufficient, the case may not be taken from the jury." Doe v. Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc., 814 A.2d 939, 946 (D.C. 2003). Therefore, the question for this court is whether a reasonable juror could have properly reached a verdict in favor of Ms. Wilson. Abebe, supra, 667 A.2d at 836; Faniel, supra, 404 A.2d at 150; Baker v. D.C. Transit Sys., Inc., 248 A.2d 829, 831 (D.C. 1969).

III. ...


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