United States District Court, D. Columbia
JAMES R. WISE, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant
James R. Wise, Plaintiff: Marc David Schifanelli, LEAD
ATTORNEY, SCHIFANELLI & ASSOCIATES, LLC, Annapolis, MD USA;
Elizabeth Rena Makris, SCHIFANELLI AND ASSOCIATES, Annapolis,
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.
OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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. 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.
government denies any negligence. It takes the position that
Mr. Wise slipped,
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.
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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."
FINDINGS OF FACT
Stairwell 6 in the Federal Reserve Building
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.
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.
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.
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.
Floor 2-G is one floor above Floor 3-G. Id. at
Because Stairwell 6 is the only stairwell that descends to
Floor 3-G, Stairwell 6
receives frequent foot traffic. Id. at 134:23-24,
135:4-5; Def.'s Ex. 21.
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.
May 18, 2010, Stairwell 6 had a handrail attached to the wall
on the left side of the stairs. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr.
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.
top and bottom bolts attaching the handrail to the wall were
toggle bolts. Mar. 9, 2015 Trial Tr. 21:10-24, 90:1-6.
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.
Federal Reserve building's stairwell handrails have not
been repaired since they were constructed. Id. at
Stairwell Inspections and Stair Climbing Tests
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.
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.
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.
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.
Members of the LEU were allowed to use the stairwell
handrails while performing the stair climbing test. Mar. ...