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Sperling v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

April 7, 2008

DONALD N. SPERLING, ESQ., PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF CLARA MARIBEL OXLAJ-GONZALES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, DEFENDANT.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to Amend his Complaint to add the District of Columbia ("the District") as a Party Defendant. The District opposes the Motion, arguing that the amendment is futile because the District did not receive adequate notice of Plaintiff's claim pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-309. After a thorough review of the Parties' submissions, applicable case law and statutory authority, the Court shall grant Plaintiff's [26] Motion for Leave to Amend his Complaint, for the reasons that follow.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Donald N. Sperling, Personal Representative of the Estate of Clara Maribel Oxlaj-Gonzalez ("Decedent"), filed this action against Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") on March 21, 2007, seeking damages in connection with a fatal collision between Decedent and a WMATA bus on January 16, 2007. According to the Complaint, "[s]uddenly and without adequate warning to Plaintiff's Decedent, [the WMATA bus driver] executed a left turn in violation of a traffic control device . . . and caused the [WMATA bus] to strike Plaintiff's Decedent with force sufficient to cause her death." Compl. ¶ 3. The Metropolitan Police Department investigated the incident and prepared a report dated January 17, 2008:

The preliminary investigation reveals that the Pedestrian was walking Northbound . . . when she then attempted to cross Park Road Northwest. It is unknown at the time of this writing if the Pedestrian was indeed within the marked crosswalk area. V1 [presumably, the WMATA bus] was traveling Northbound on 15th Street and while on a green traffic signal, negotiated a left turn at the Intersection of 16th and Park Rd. and collided with the Pedestrian. The Pedestrian was knocked to the ground from the initial impact. V1's right side tires and vehicle undercarriage passed over the Pedestrian's body before it came to a stop. The Pedestrian's injuries sustained proved fatal . . . V1 made a left turn in violation of a posted No Left Turn sign.

Pl.'s Reply, Ex. 1 at 3 (the "Police Report"). The Police Report also described the time and place of the incident, and indicated that the "case is under investigation" by a Detective in the Major Crash Investigations Unit. Id.

On April 13, 2007, WMATA sent a letter to the District describing the incident and advising as to the District's alleged liability:

The traffic sign warning pedestrians, that buses were allowed to turn left, while all other vehicles were banned from doing so, had been knocked off approximately two months before this incident. The District of Columbia failed to properly maintain and promptly replace the missing traffic sign, causing or contributing to the pedestrian's injury. WMATA has been sued for wrongful death by the estate of the pedestrian.

Id., Ex. 1 at 1 ("WMATA's Letter"). WMATA's Letter also enclosed a copy of the Police Report. Id. Four days later, WMATA filed a Third Party Complaint in this case against the District claiming that the District "was negligent in failing to maintain the presence and visibility of its sign which informed pedestrians that buses could make left turns lawfully at the intersection where Plaintiff was struck by a WMATA bus." Third Party Compl. ¶ 2. The District filed a Motion to Strike the Third Party Complaint contending that it violated Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 14(a)'s requirement that a theory of liability exist between the impleaded party and the defendant (as opposed to the Plaintiff). See Mot. to Strike ¶ 3. The Court denied the Motion to Strike on August 3, 2007, holding that WMATA appropriately filed a Third Party Complaint by alleging facts demonstrating that the District's sign or absence thereof may have contributed to the collision, and that any determination as to whether the District was a concurrent tortfeasor was premature and not appropriately decided in the context of the District's Motion to Strike. See Mem. Op. at 6-7 (Aug. 3, 2007).

Plaintiff filed the instant Motion for Leave to Amend his Complaint on October 2, 2007, explaining that "Plaintiff now wishes to name the District as a party defendant to the extent that [its] failure to properly maintain the sign caused or contributed to cause the Collision." Pl.'s Mot. at 2. Although WMATA consented to Plaintiff's Motion, the District opposed it. Id. According to the District, Plaintiff's amendment is futile because Plaintiff failed to provide the District with proper notice of its claim pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-309, which provides that an action may not be maintained against the District of Columbia for unliquidated damages to person or property unless, within six months after the injury or damages was sustained, the claimant, his agent, or attorney has given notice in writing to the Mayor of the approximate time, place, cause and circumstances of the injury or damage. A report in writing by the Metropolitan Police Department, in the regular course of duty, is a sufficient notice under this section.

See Third Party Def.'s Opp'n at 3 (quoting D.C. Code § 12-309) ("Section 12-309"). Plaintiff filed a Reply on October 26, 2007, and the Court permitted the District to file a Sur-Reply on November 8, 2007.

Prior to addressing the instant Motion, the Court sua sponte ordered the Parties to brief whether the Court would have jurisdiction over a claim brought by Plaintiff directly against the District. See Min. Order dated Nov. 13, 2007. The Court noted that Plaintiff's Complaint (and proposed Amended Complaint) predicated federal court jurisdiction against WMATA on D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(81), but did not appear to state a basis for the Court's jurisdiction over the District. See Christmas v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 621 F. Supp. 355, 356-58 (D.D.C. 1985) (questioning jurisdiction where plaintiff filed suit against WMATA pursuant to D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(81) and attempted to add the District as a party under a theory of ancillary jurisdiction). Plaintiff filed a supplemental brief on November 30, 2007, asking the Court to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim against the District. See Pl.'s Br. at 2-5. The District filed a supplemental brief on December 14, 2007, consenting to the Court's exercise of supplemental jurisdiction. Third Party Def.'s Br. at 2. Because the Court has original jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim against WMATA, see D.C. Code § 9-1107.01(81), the Court shall exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the claim against the District because it arises out of the same case and controversy. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) ("in any civil action of which the district courts have original jurisdiction, the district courts shall have supplemental jurisdiction over all other claims that are so related to claims in the action . . . that they form part of the same case or controversy . . ."); Plater v. District of Columbia, 530 F. Supp. 2d 101, 107 n.7 (D.D.C. 2008) (exercising supplemental jurisdiction over the District where Plaintiff had initially filed suit against only WMATA). Accordingly, the Court shall proceed directly to the merits of the Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to Amend his Complaint.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), a party may amend its pleading once as a matter of course at any time before a responsive pleading is served. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a). Additionally, Rule 15(a) allows a party to amend its pleading to add a new party. Id.; Wiggins v. Dist. Cablevision, Inc., 853 F. Supp. 484, 499 (D.D.C. 1994). Once a responsive pleading is served, however, a party may amend its complaint only by leave of the court or by written consent of the adverse party. Id.; Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). The grant or denial of leave to amend is committed to the sound discretion of the district court. See Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996). The court must, however, heed Rule 15's mandate that leave is to be "freely given when justice so requires." Id.; Caribbean Broad. Sys., Ltd. v. Cable & Wireless PLC, 148 F.3d 1080, 1083 ...


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