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Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority v. Ferguson

August 6, 2009


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB 5360-06) (Hon. Lynn Leibovitz, Trial Judge).

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

Argued June 24, 2009

Before REID, FISHER, and OBERLY, Associate Judges.

Karen Ferguson brought a negligence suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, alleging that she fell on a broken tree grate at a Metro station operated by WMATA. A jury found for Ferguson. Although we do not lightly disturb jury verdicts, we agree with WMATA that the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to put WMATA on actual or constructive notice that the tree grate was broken. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's denial of WMATA's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and remand the case to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment for WMATA.

I. Facts and Procedural History

It was sometime between one and two o'clock in the afternoon on a beautiful, windy November day, and Karen Ferguson, a 46 year-old woman living in Southeast D.C., was returning home after a morning spent running errands. To get home, Ferguson had to switch buses at the Anacostia Metrorail Station. As Ferguson arrived at the station, she saw the bus that she had hoped to catch. So, Ferguson testified, not wanting "to miss [the] bus," she began "briskly walking . . . [a]t a fast pace for somebody [her] age" toward the bus.

Then, as Ferguson put it, "[n]ext thing I know I was on my face." Ferguson testified: "I really didn't know what happened. I just know I was on the ground." Elaborating, Ferguson said that she "felt [her left] foot shift" in response to what she "felt was like uneven payment." Ferguson testified that at "the time that [she] fell . . . [she] turned around and looked" - at which point she saw that "a piece" or a "section" of a tree grate, which was "covered with a lot of leaves," was "missing." Ferguson conceded that she did not know how long the grate had been broken at the time that she fell on it.

Linwood West, the superintendent for the Grounds Maintenance and Custodial Services Branch at WMATA, testified that WMATA "[did not] do repairs to tree grates." West did agree that if WMATA "were made aware that [a grate] was damaged or broken, we would of course remove that out of it from its place." West explained that "[t]ree grates come as part of the station design. And when they're installed, actually they're installed, that's it. We don't do repairs to them." And because WMATA "[did] not do maintenance or repair of those grates," West continued, "there [was] no record" of such repairs. Later in his testimony, West suggested an additional reason for the lack of records - namely, that he felt that maintaining such records was overly burdensome. As West put it, "[i]f [a grate] was damaged and removed we would not have a record of such, because it is not the type [of] records management that we do. It's along the line of maybe like replacing [a] light bulb in the station, we don't document every maintenance activity that transpires. . . . If we were to maintain such records, it would just be voluminous, we would just have so many records."

The last witness to testify was Raymond Jones, the street supervisor assigned to Anacostia Station at the time of Ferguson's accident and the person who called the ambulance to respond to Ferguson. On cross-examination, Ferguson's counsel asked Jones: "Isn't it a part of what your duties are to look around the station on a daily basis to make sure there are no hazards, such as broken tree grates?" Jones responded: "It's my duty to monitor the station, yes."

WMATA moved for judgment as a matter of law at the close of plaintiff's case and at the close of all the evidence, and the court denied both motions. After the jury returned a verdict for Ferguson, WMATA renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law. The trial court denied that motion as well, and WMATA filed a timely notice of appeal.

II. Discussion

A. 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). This court considers de novo whether the evidence was sufficient to go to the jury. 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. It 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. Therefore, the question for this court is whether a reasonable juror could have properly ...

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