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Speights v. 800 Water Street

September 16, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB8003-06) (Hon. Odessa F. Vincent, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, Senior Judge

Submitted May 5, 2010

Before REID and KRAMER, Associate Judges, and KING, Senior Judge.

In this negligence action to recover damages for an injury suffered during a fall, Nathaniel Speights appeals from the trial court's entry of judgment as a matter of law for appellee 800 Water Street, Inc., which owns the H2O Restaurant where the injury occurred. Speights contends the trial court erroneously concluded that the jury would have to speculate in order to find that the restaurant's negligence caused the injury Speights sustained. He also argues the trial court improperly ruled certain evidence was inadmissible hearsay and that the trial court improperly excluded Speights' proffered expert witness. Because we agree with Speights that a reasonable jury could find, without speculating, that a restaurant employee negligently caused his injury, we hold that the trial court erred in finding in 800 Water Street's favor as a matter of law. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

I. The Trial

At a jury trial in the Superior Court, Speights testified about the circumstances leading to his injury. On the evening of March 5, 2004, he was a customer in the restaurant H2O, when, around 6:30 or 7:00, he attempted to exit the restaurant through its vestibule.*fn1 He described the vestibule as consisting of two sets of double doors, one leading from the exterior of the restaurant into the vestibule, and the second leading from the vestibule into the dining area of the restaurant. The doors leading from the vestibule into the dining area had tinted panels of glass which could not be seen through, and the lighting in that area of the restaurant was dim.*fn2

As Speights was heading towards the first set of double doors, a group of people coming through the doorway in the opposite direction held the door for him. Shortly after Speights passed through the doorway, he felt the door hit him in the back with "a lot of force," which caused him to fall and land awkwardly on his right arm. Immediately after Speights fell, a young man fell on top of him. This young man had been moving in the same direction as Speights, from the dining area into the vestibule. Speights noticed he was wearing a black and white waiter's uniform and carrying a serving tray. He helped Speights up and directed him to a restaurant manager. Other than the man in the waiter's uniform, there was no testimony by Speights regarding the presence of anyone else in the area of the doorway after his fall.

During Speights' direct examination, his counsel asked, with respect to the man in the waiter's uniform, "Did he say anything to you after he fell?" The defense objected on hearsay grounds, and the trial court sustained the objection. Speights' counsel did not present any argument regarding the objection. Later, the court sua sponte questioned Speights, asking how he knew it was the waiter who pushed the door into him. Speights responded, "I knew it because . . . after he landed on me, he said, 'I'm sorry. I didn't see you.'" The court admonished Speights, saying, "Don't tell me what he said. You know better. I know you do."*fn3 Again, Speights' counsel made no attempt to challenge the court's ruling that the statement was inadmissible. Speights contends before us, however, that the trial judge erred in excluding that testimony.

Shortly after the fall, Speights felt his arm go numb and was having trouble lifting it. He went immediately to a hospital emergency room, where it was determined that his arm was broken and required surgery. Speights described in detail his treatment and medical bills, which totaled approximately $15,000, including medication and hospital visits. He described the pain from his injury as initially being "excruciating" and said at the time of trial -- four years after he fell -- that he still periodically felt pain and required medication to control it.

In addition to his own testimony, Speights offered the testimony of Faik Tugberk, an expert in the fields of architecture and planning. Based on a deposition taken prior to trial, Tugberk would have testified that the vestibule and its sets of doors were "not planned in a safe manner." He highlighted two aspects of the doors that he deemed unsafe, the tinted glass on the window panels and the doors' ability to open both ways, instead of just toward the exit. He based his conclusions on his experience as an architect and his familiarity with the International Building Code 2000, which he said had been adopted by many jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland.

As his counsel articulated before the trial court, Speights had essentially two theories of negligence: first, that the vestibule area was designed in an inherently unsafe manner; and second, that the restaurant's employee failed to exercise proper care when he opened the door. After reviewing the expert's proffered testimony, the trial court ruled the expert would not be permitted to testify. The court reasoned that the expert had failed to articulate a national standard of care applicable to the architecture and planning of the restaurant. This ruling effectively eliminated Speights' "unsafe design" theory. That ruling by the trial judge is also challenged before us in this appeal.

After Speights presented his case-in-chief, the defense moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing, inter alia, that because Speights had not actually seen the waiter push the door open, there was "no proof that any employee of H2O opened the door onto Mr. Speights," and that "it would merely be speculation for the jury to infer that." Speights' counsel argued that the evidence, taken together with the fair inferences the jury could make in Speights' favor, was sufficient to show that it was indeed the waiter who opened the door. The trial court granted the motion, concluding that in order to find in Speights' favor, the jury would have to speculate as to the exact cause of the door hitting Speights.

II. Judgment as a Matter of Law

We review the granting or denial of a motion for a judgment as a matter of law de novo, applying the same legal standards as the trial court in ruling on the motion in the first instance. NCRIC, Inc. v. Columbia Hospital for Women Med. Ctr., Inc., 957 A.2d 890, 902 (D.C. 2008). "When the evidence and its attendant inferences, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, support but one reasonable conclusion favorable to the moving party, the trial court must grant [the motion]; otherwise, however, the motion must be denied." Urban Dev. Solutions, LLC v. District of Columbia, 992 A.2d 1255, 1266 (D.C. 2010) (citation omitted); see also Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a)(1). "As long as there is some evidence from ...

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