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Margaretta Sibert-Dean v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

December 4, 2011

MARGARETTA SIBERT-DEAN,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY,
DEFENDANT / THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF
v.
NORMA JEAN WOODSON
THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Beryl A. Howell

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Following an eight-day jury trial, defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") was found liable for the injuries plaintiff Margaretta Sibert-Dean sustained after the WMATA bus on which she was a passenger collided with another vehicle. WMATA now seeks a new trial, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, arguing that the Court erred when it instructed the jury in accordance with the jury instructions that WMATA submitted to the Court and initially requested the Court to use. Specifically, the Court instructed the jury that a violation of any of the seven traffic regulations applicable in this case would constitute negligence per se. In its instant motion, WMATA complains that two of the seven regulations should not have been included in the negligence per se instruction. According to WMATA, these two regulations -- 18 DCMR § 2213.4 and § 2206.1 -- merely reiterate the duty of care established by the common law and consequently are not sufficiently specific to support a negligence per se instruction. This argument is different from the various positions WMATA previously asserted both before and during trial, when, after requesting a negligence per se instruction, WMATA argued that negligence per se was not applicable for violation of any traffic regulation. WMATA now apparently concedes that a negligence per se instruction is appropriate for certain traffic regulations, just not the two regulations singled out in this motion. As explained below, WMATA's new challenge to the negligence per se instruction given to the jury at the trial of this matter is unavailing. Accordingly, WMATA's motion for new trial is denied.

I.BACKGROUND

On February 14, 2006, a WMATA bus traveling southbound on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C. collided with a vehicle driven by Norma Jean Woodson. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 22, 2011 AM, at 8-11.*fn1 The collision occurred when Ms. Woodson, who was driving northbound on Georgia Avenue, made a left turn in front of the bus in order to enter a grocery store parking lot. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 27, 2011, at 94. Plaintiff Margaretta SibertDean was a passenger on the WMATA bus at the time of the accident, and sustained trauma to her shoulder and neck area as a result of the accident that caused her to suffer orthopedic and neurologic injuries. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 22, 2011 AM, at 77-85; Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 23, 2011 (testimony of Dr. Edwin Fulton); Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 26, 2011 (testimony of Dr. Kenneth Murray).

On November 1, 2008, the plaintiff filed a Complaint against WMATA, asserting negligence on the part of the WMATA bus driver and seeking compensation for the injuries she sustained.*fn2 Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1, Ex. 1, D.C. Superior Court Compl. On December 18, 2008, WMATA filed a third-party Complaint against Ms. Woodson ("third-party defendant Woodson").*fn3 ECF No. 4.

In advance of trial, on August 15, 2011, the parties filed a joint pretrial statement setting forth, inter alia, the claims and defenses they would assert before the jury, as well as proposed jury instructions. Joint Pretrial Statement ("JPS"), ECF No. 54. WMATA summarized its defenses that its employee bus driver was not negligent and "paid full time and attention to the operation of the WMATA bus, and . . . complied fully with all District of Columbia Traffic Regulations then and there in force and effect." Id. at 2. WMATA also made clear its claim that third-party defendant Woodson's negligence caused the accident and that she "violated . . . DC [sic] Traffic Regulations in the operation of her vehicle and that the violation of these regulations constitutes negligence per se and/or evidence of negligence." Id. at 3. WMATA cited eight regulations, including "18 DCMR []§2213.4 (Failure to Pay Full Time and Attention)," which is at issue in this motion, as traffic regulations that would constitute negligence per se if violated. *fn4 Id.

As required by the Court's order, Supplemental Standing Order, ECF No. 53, May 25, 2011, at ¶ 1(b)(ii), WMATA also supplied as part of the JPS, the text of proposed jury instructions. WMATA's proposed jury instructions included a negligence per se instruction based upon D.C. Standardized Civil Jury Instruction § 5.09 and modified with the text of eight traffic regulations, violation of which would trigger the finding of negligence.*fn5 JPS, ECF No. 54, Ex. 3, "Proposed Jury Instructions Prepared by Defendant WMATA -- Includes Proposed Instructions By Plaintiff and Defendant Woodson," at 34-42. The plaintiff and third-party defendant Woodson joined in this request. Id. The traffic regulations that WMATA requested the Court to read to the jury included 18 DCMR § 2213.4, which provides that "[a]n operator shall, when operating a vehicle, give full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle." Id. at 34. In addition to the eight traffic regulations requested by WMATA, the plaintiff requested inclusion of 18 DCMR § 2206.1, which provides that "[n]o person shall start a vehicle which is stopped, standing, or parked unless and until the movement can be made with reasonable safety." JPS, ECF No. 54, Ex. 2, Pl.'s Proposed Jury Instructions, at 26.

In order to clarify portions of the JPS, including any objections among the parties to proposed jury instructions, the Court directed the parties submit a supplemental joint pretrial statement that included "a joint agreed upon list of proposed jury instructions." Minute Order dated Aug. 25, 2011 (Howell, J.). In the Supplement to the JPS, all three parties jointly requested that the Court give "Civil Jury Instructions for DC § 5.09 -- (Plaintiff request pattern only; WMATA requests modified only)." Supplement to the JPS, ECF No. 57, at 11. No party requested the negligence instruction at D.C. Standardized Civil Jury Instruction § 5.10. Id.

At the initial charging conference held on September 27, in the middle of trial, the Court raised the issue of whether the negligence per se jury instruction, D.C. Standardized Civil Jury Instruction § 5.09, as opposed the "evidence of negligence" instruction, D.C. Standardized Civil Jury Instruction § 5.10, was appropriate, considering that WMATA had listed both instructions in its initial proposed jury instructions filed with the JPS. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 27, 2011, at 137-39. The Court revisited this issue at a charging conference held on September 28, and concluded that the negligence per se jury instruction that all three parties had initially requested in the JPS and jointly listed as agreed-to in the supplemental JPS, was appropriate. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 28, 2011 AM pt. 2, at 3-4. WMATA raised no objection to the inclusion of the negligence per se jury instruction. Id. Rather, WMATA reiterated its request to include in the negligence per se instruction 18 DCMR § 2201.7, as it had originally requested in the JPS, and urged the Court to consider including an additional traffic regulation, 18 DCMR § 2201.9, which had not previously been mentioned either in the JPS, Supplemental JPS or orally in discussions concerning the jury instructions. Id. at 4-5. The Court sustained the objection by third-party defendant Woodson and the plaintiff to inclusion of 18 DCMR § 2201.7 in the instructions, finding that regulation inapplicable to the street configuration at issue in the case.*fn6 Id. at 3-4. Both the plaintiff and third-party defendant Woodson objected to WMATA's new request to include 18 DCMR § 2201.9. Id. The Court sustained the objection following review of the requested traffic regulation and finding it inapplicable to the facts presented in the case.*fn7 Id. at 4-5.

Later the same day, shortly before the jury was instructed, WMATA raised an objection to the negligence per se jury instruction, arguing that negligence per se was not applicable to any traffic regulation and citing in support of this position Bowman v. Redding & Co., 449 F.2d 956 (D.C. Cir. 1976). Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 28, 2011 PM, at 1 (WMATA Counsel, Ms. Carey: "I'm concerned with the negligence per se, instruction . . . . My concern is that the traffic regulations are generally not the type of regulation which a violation creates negligence per se . . ."). The Court declined to rely on this case and overruled the objection.*fn8 Id. at 10-11.

During trial, the jury heard evidence that prior to the accident, the WMATA bus was stopped on the 3800 block of Georgia Ave. N.W. to pick up and drop off passengers. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 27, 2011, at 51-54 (testimony of Dante Dinkins); see also Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 21, 2011 PM, at 13. At this stop, the WMATA bus driver, Dante Dinkins, was distracted by attractive women in the vicinity and failed to assess traffic conditions prior to accelerating from his stopped position. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 22, 2011 AM, at 9-16 (testimony of Patricia Shelton); id. at 71 (testimony of plaintiff Margaretta Sibert-Dean). Witnesses stated that had the bus driver looked before moving, he would have noticed that third-party defendant Woodson's car was turning immediately in front of the bus. Id. at 29-32 (testimony of Patricia Shelton); id. at 74-75 (testimony of plaintiff Margaretta Sibert-Dean). Also presented at trial was evidence that third-party defendant Woodson observed that the WMATA bus was moving, or would soon move, and that she nonetheless attempted to cross traffic into the grocery store parking lot before it was safe to do so. Trial Tr. (Rough), Sept. 27, 2011, at 109-112 (testimony of Michael Cooper). On September 30, 2011, the jury returned a verdict against WMATA and third-party defendant Woodson, concluding that both defendants' negligence proximately caused the accident.*fn9 Verdict Sheet, ECF Nos. 67-68. The jury awarded the plaintiff $675,000.00 for her injuries. Id.

On October 7, 2011, WMATA filed the instant motion for a new trial. ECF No. 70. WMATA contends that the Court erred when it included traffic regulations 18 DCMR §§ 2213.4 and 2206.1 among the seven traffic regulations in the Court's negligence per se instruction. Traffic regulation § 2213.4, "Obstruction of Driver's View or Driving Mechanism: Improper Riding," provides that "[a]n operator shall, when operating a vehicle, give full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle." Regulation § 2206.1, "Starting, Stopping and Backing," states that "[n]o person shall start a vehicle which is stopped, standing, or parked unless and until the movement can be made with reasonable safety." Although WMATA argued on September 28 that negligence per se is not applicable to any traffic regulations, in its motion for new trial WMATA raises a different argument, asserting that inclusion of only these two traffic regulations, of the seven provided to the jury, was improper. As explained below, however, this argument is without merit. Accordingly, WMATA's motion for new trial is denied.

II.STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an ...


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