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Wise v. United States

United States District Court, D. Columbia

November 17, 2015

JAMES R. WISE, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant

Page 54

          For James R. Wise, Plaintiff: Marc David Schifanelli, LEAD ATTORNEY, SCHIFANELLI & ASSOCIATES, LLC, Annapolis, MD USA; Elizabeth Rena Makris, SCHIFANELLI AND ASSOCIATES, Annapolis, MD USA.

         For United States of America, Defendant: Addy R. Schmitt, LEAD ATTORNEY, MILLER & CHEVALIER, CHARTERED, Washington, DC USA; Heather D. Graham-Oliver, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Washington, DC USA; Rafique O. Anderson, LEAD ATTORNEY, UNITED STATES CAPITOL POLICE, Washington, DC USA.

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         FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff James R. Wise had an accident in a stairwell in the Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C on May 18, 2010. Claiming that a faulty stairwell handrail

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triggered his accident, Mr. Wise sued the United States for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act. He charged the government with negligence, negligence per se, and gross negligence.

         This Court concluded a three-day bench trial on March 16, 2015. The Court now makes its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, as required under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1). Any facts not expressly stated in the findings below are either immaterial or undisputed.

         The Court finds that Mr. Wise failed to produce expert testimony at trial to prove the government's standard of care, as required by the District of Columbia's tort law. The Court also finds that Mr. Wise failed to prove the United States had actual or constructive notice of the faulty handrail. Both the lack of expert testimony and the government's lack of notice prevent Mr. Wise from holding the United States liable for his accident, and so the Court enters judgment in favor of the United States.

         II. BACKGROUND

         On May 18, 2010, Mr. Wise was employed as an electrician under contract with the federal government, and he was working at the Federal Reserve building at the intersection of 20th Street N.W. and C Street N.W. in Washington, D.C. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 10:20-11:5, 124:21-125:6, ECF No. 42; Def.'s Ex. 18, at 1. That day, Mr. Wise had an accident in a stairwell and injured his neck and back. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 13:6-11, 16:2-17:1; Def.'s Ex. 18, at 1. He received medical care for his injuries that evening at Anne Arundel Medical Center's emergency room in Annapolis, Maryland. See Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 30:6-31:7; Def.'s Exs. 1, 8. In the months following his accident, he also received medical care from Maryland Primary Care Physicians, physical therapy from Bayside Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation, and pain management from the Kahan Center for Pain Management. See Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 35:17-37:5, 61:11-16; Pl.'s Ex. 3; Def.'s Exs. 2, 14.

         Mr. Wise believed that a faulty stairwell handrail came loose and triggered his accident. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 13:6-11. After filing an administrative claim with the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Wise sued the United States in this Court under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § § 1346, 2674. See Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 1-4, ECF No. 13; Answer ¶ 4, ECF No. 8.[1] Mr. Wise claims that the government created a dangerous condition by allowing law enforcement officers to conduct a physical fitness test in the stairwell that weakened the stairwell handrails over time. Mar. 16, 2015 Trial Tr. 56:21-65:8, ECF No. 44. Mr. Wise therefore contends that the government had a duty to inspect the stairwell handrails at least twice a year, and that the government was negligent when it failed to do so. Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 17-18; Mar. 16, 2015 Trial Tr. 65:12-17; Pl.'s Proposed Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law ¶ ¶ 12-15, ECF No. 38.

         The government denies any negligence. It takes the position that Mr. Wise slipped,

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but the stairwell handrail was not the cause. Mar. 16, 2015 Trial Tr. 75:20-22. The United States also contends that its law enforcement officers were not using that particular handrail for their physical fitness test in the time around Mr. Wise's accident, and that the government did not receive notice of any handrail defects before Mr. Wise's accident Id. at 79:11-80:5; Def.'s Proposed Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law 34-36, ECF No. 45. Therefore, the government argues, Mr. Wise's negligence claims must be dismissed. Def.'s Proposed Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law 35-36.

         This Court conducted a three-day bench trial on March 9, March 10, and March 16, 2015. The Court heard testimony from Mr. Wise, from persons employed at the Federal Reserve building at the time of Mr. Wise's accident, and from doctors who evaluated Mr. Wise's injuries. The Court finds that the government lacked notice of any problems with the stairwell handrail before Mr. Wise's accident, and that Mr. Wise has failed to produce expert testimony required to establish the appropriate standard of care for installing and subsequently inspecting handrails under these circumstances. Because both of these things are prerequisites to establishing negligence liability in this case, the Court finds that the United States is not liable to Mr. Wise for his accident, for his injuries, or for his subsequent medical care.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In an action tried without a jury, " the court must find the facts specially and state its conclusions of law separately." Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(1). " But the judge need only make brief, definite, pertinent findings and conclusions upon the contested matters; there is no necessity for over-elaboration of detail or particularization of facts." Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a) advisory committee's note to 1946 amendment; accord Caffey v. Togo, No. 97-5092, 1998 WL 230269, at *2 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 9, 1998); Moore v. Hartman, No. 92-2288, 102 F.Supp.3d 35, 2015 WL 1812852, at *15 (D.D.C. Apr. 17, 2015). Therefore, the Court need not address all the evidence presented at trial, and must simply make findings sufficient to allow the appellate court to conduct a meaningful review. Caffey, 1998 WL 230269, at *2; Hurwitz v. Hurwitz, 136 F.2d 796, 799, 78 U.S.App.D.C. 66 (D.C. Cir. 1943); Moore, 2015 WL 1812852, at *15.

         The Court's findings and conclusions " may appear in an opinion or a memorandum of decision filed by the court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(1). On appellate review, findings of fact " must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous." Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(6).

         IV. FINDINGS OF FACT

         A. Stairwell 6 in the Federal Reserve Building

         1. The Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C. is located at the corner of C Street N.W. and 20th Street NW. See Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 10:25-11:5; Def.'s Ex. 18.

         2. The Federal Reserve building has a stairwell, Stairwell 6, which includes a span of stairs connecting two basement floors, Floors 2-G and 3-G. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 126:1-10; Def.'s Ex. 21.

         3. Floor 2-G, also known as the " concourse" level, is the second garage level of the Federal Reserve building. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 126:8-10.

         4. Floor 3-G, also known as the " plant" level, is the third garage level of the Federal Reserve building. Id. at 126:5-8, 163:25-164:1.

         5. Floor 2-G is one floor above Floor 3-G. Id. at 126:5-10.

         6. Because Stairwell 6 is the only stairwell that descends to Floor 3-G, Stairwell 6

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receives frequent foot traffic. Id. at 134:23-24, 135:4-5; Def.'s Ex. 21.

         7. Stairwell 6 contains eight stair steps between Floor G-2 and the midlevel landing between Floors G-2 and G-3. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 15:6; see also id. at 17:6-19:15; Pl.'s Ex. 1-A; Def.'s Ex. 21.

         8. On May 18, 2010, Stairwell 6 had a handrail attached to the wall on the left side of the stairs. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 12:24-13:2.

         9. Three bolts, located at the top, middle, and bottom of the handrail, attached the handrail to the wall. See id. at 16:19-21, 21:10-24; Def.'s Ex. 18, at 2, 3.

         10. The top and bottom bolts attaching the handrail to the wall were toggle bolts. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 21:10-24, 90:1-6.

         11. The Federal Reserve's building operations supervisors and its manager of design and construction had not received any complaints about, or had any problems with, stairwell handrails in the building, even though at trial each employee had worked at the Federal Reserve building for more than ten years. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 99:4-18, 106:17-107:18, 112:12-20, 128:23-129:1; see also id. at 93:8-24, 109:4-22, 112:18-20, 117:6-7, 118:3-4 (describing the employees' roles and tenures at the Federal Reserve building). Plaintiff has not provided any evidence of any such prior complaints.[2]

         12. The Federal Reserve building's stairwell handrails have not been repaired since they were constructed. Id. at 127:11-24.

         B. Stairwell Inspections and Stair Climbing Tests

         13. The Federal Reserve building's law enforcement unit (LEU) had more than 100 members in May 2010. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 141:6-16; Mar. 10, 2015 Trial Tr. 9:21-10:3, ECF No. 43.

         14. At the time, the LEU patrolled the stairwells twice daily to look for hazards and safety concerns. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 145:15-25; Mar. 10, 2015 Trial Tr. 9:11-13.

         15. For a period of time before May 2010, the LEU conducted " stair climbing tests" within the stairwells once or twice a year. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 115:2-116:1, 127:25-128:16, 143:12-25, 144:10-13, 146:16-21; Mar. 10, 2015 Trial Tr. 13:14-14:1; Def.'s Exs. 22, 23.

         16. During each stair climbing test, all the LEU members climbed stairs to reach the penthouse level of the Federal Reserve Building. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 143:22-23, 145:8-11, 146:12-21; Def.'s Exs. 22, 23.

         17. Members of the LEU were allowed to use the stairwell handrails while performing the stair climbing test. Mar. ...


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