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Odemns v. Dist. of Columbia and the Dist. of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

July 12, 2007

TANYA L. ODEMNS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA WATER AND SEWER AUTHORITY, APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-2615-99) (Hon. Natalia Combs Greene, Trial Judge).

Per curiam.

Submitted October 23, 2003

Before FARRELL, Associate Judge, WAGNER,*fn2 and KING, Senior Judges.

Appellant, Tanya L. Odemns, appeals from an order of the trial court granting summary judgment to appellees, the District of Columbia (District) and District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), on her complaint for negligence against appellees. In granting the motion, the trial court concluded that neither the District nor WASA had a duty to Odemns for the condition of a manhole cover on privately owned property which she alleged caused her to fall and sustain injuries. On appeal, appellant argues that the trial court erred in its ruling because: (1) WASA has a duty to inspect and provide notice of any dangerous conditions under applicable regulations, the foreseeability of harm test and public policy considerations; and (2) WASA is not shielded from liability by the public duty doctrine. We affirm.*fn3

I.

Appellant filed a complaint against the District and WASA alleging that she sustained injuries when she stepped on a defective water meter manhole cover at her apartment complex on Savannah Terrace, S.E.*fn4 It is undisputed that the manhole cover was privately owned; however, appellant claimed that WASA had a duty to inspect the manhole cover and to alert the property owner to any dangerous condition so that it could be remedied.*fn5 Appellant claimed that as a result of WASA's breach of that duty, she was injured when she fell into the manhole.

Before trial, WASA filed a motion requesting the trial court to hold as a matter of law that it had no duty to appellant to maintain, inspect, or correct the water meter or its cover which allegedly caused appellant's injuries. Appellant filed an opposition, and WASA filed a reply. With the consent of the parties, the court treated the motion as one for summary judgment. Concluding that neither the District nor WASA had a duty to inspect, repair and maintain the meter covers at appellant's apartment complex and that it owed her no special duty, the trial court granted the motion.

II.

Appellant argues that the applicable regulations imposed a duty upon WASA to inspect the manhole cover and to take reasonable action to ensure that the dangerous condition was remedied. It contends that these regulations limit the duty of the property owner to bearing the cost for the installation and maintenance of water meters and their appurtenances. WASA argues in response that the responsibility for maintaining commercially owned water meters and any appurtenances thereto is placed by statute and implementing regulations upon the property owner. The disposition of the issue presented turns on the interpretation of a statute and its implementing regulations concerning the inspection, maintenance and repair of privately owned water meters and appurtenances.

A. Applicable Legal Principles

This court reviews questions of statutory interpretation de novo. Porter v. United States, 769 A.2d 143, 148 (D.C. 2001) (citing District of Columbia v. Jerry M., 717 A.2d 866, 868 (D.C. 1998)). "'The primary and general rule of statutory construction is that the intent of the lawmaker is to be found in the language that he [or she] has used.'" Peoples Drug Stores, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 470 A.2d 751, 753 (D.C. 1983) (en banc) (quoting Varela v. Hi-Lo Powered Stirrups, Inc.,424 A.2d 61, 64 (D.C. 1980) (en banc)quoting in turn United States v. Goldenberg, 168 U.S. 95, 102-03 (1897)). The words of a statute or regulation "should be construed according to their ordinary sense, and with the meaning commonly attributed to them." Porter, 769 A.2d at 148 (quoting Demus v. United States, 710 A.2d 858, 861 (D.C. 1998)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying these general principles and others mentioned hereinafter, we address the issues raised by the parties.

B. Analysis

Appellant concedes that financial responsibility for erecting and maintaining water meters and their appurtenances for commercial property is on the property owner. She argues, however, that municipal regulations place upon WASA the exclusive duty of inspecting water meters and the manholes in which they are located and that the regulations and policy considerations require WASA to take action to remedy any dangerous condition. In support of her argument, she first cites 21 DCMR §§ 300.2, 302.5, and 305.1, which she contends show that the property owner's duty is limited to bearing costs, and 21 DCMR § 305.5, which she contends imposes the inspection duty on only WASA. WASA contends that 21 DCMR §§ 302.5 and 305.1 demonstrate that it is the customer that has a duty to maintain the water meter and its appurtenances.*fn6

Contrary to appellant's position, a plain reading of sections 300.2, 302.5 and 305.1 does not suggest that the owner's responsibility is limited to bearing the costs of installation and maintenance of water meters and their appurtenances. While the financial responsibilities of the property owners are spelled out in these sections, their responsibility for "provid[ing], erect[ing], and maintain[ing] the meters and appurtenances," 21 DCMR § 302.5, and for "keep[ing] their meters in repair and . . . protect[ing] them against frost and injury of any kind," is also made clear. 21 DCMR § 305.1. According the words used their ordinary meaning, the referenced sections impose upon the private, commercial ...


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