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Martin v. Omni Hotels Management Corp.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 30, 2016

KATHLEEN C. MARTIN, Plaintiff,
v.
OMNI HOTELS MANAGEMENT CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION RE DOCUMENT NO: 14

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On June 12, 2014, Plaintiff Kathleen Martin tripped on a mat and fell in the lobby of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, a hotel located in Washington, DC and owned by Defendant Omni Hotels Management Corporation (“Omni”). Ms. Martin alleges that the mat, located near a hotel entrance, was in a dangerously wrinkled condition prior to her accident-a condition that caused her fall and the resulting injuries. Ms. Martin sued Omni, claiming that Omni's negligence caused her personal injuries. Omni has moved for summary judgment, contending that Ms. Martin is unable to prove that her injuries were proximately caused by any negligence on the part of Omni. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant Omni's motion for summary judgment.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Martin and draws all justifiable inferences in her favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (explaining that at summary judgment “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor”).

         Omni operates and manages the Omni Shoreham Hotel located at 2500 Calvert Street, N.W., in Washington, DC (the “Omni hotel”). See Def.'s Answer & Affirmative Defenses ¶ 4, ECF No. 1-4 (filed with Notice of Removal) [hereinafter Def.'s Answer]. At approximately 6:10 PM on June 12, 2014, Kathleen Martin, a registered guest at the Omni hotel, walked through the Parkview Lobby, located on the hotel's eastern side. See Def.'s Stmt. Material Facts ¶ 2, ECF No. 14; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 1-1 (filed with Notice of Removal). As she approached the hotel's exit, Ms. Martin tripped over the raised, wrinkled rubber edge of a mat located directly in front of a glass doorway. See Def.'s Stmt. Material Facts ¶¶ 2-3; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 2. That wrinkled edge caused Ms. Martin to fall to the floor and, as she fell, Ms. Martin struck her head, right arm and wrist, and left knee. See Def.'s Stmt. Material Facts ¶ 3; Am. Compl. ¶ 2. As a result of her fall, Ms. Martin sustained a fractured right humerus and injuries to her right wrist and left knee. See Pl.'s Answers Def.'s 1st Interrog. ¶ 6, ECF No. 14-2. Ms. Martin was hospitalized for two days at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, and required follow-up treatment near her home in Illinois. See Id. She filed suit against Omni, claiming that her fall was the direct and proximate result of Omni's negligence, because Omni failed to maintain the lobby in a reasonably safe condition. See Am. Compl. ¶ 5.

         Dr. Herbert Sohn, who was traveling with Ms. Martin, took several photos of the mat on which Ms. Martin tripped (the “Subject-mat”) shortly after her fall. See Pl.'s Ex. 13, ECF No. 15-3. Additionally, Dr. Sohn testified that, after Ms. Martin fell, he observed other individuals tripping over the mat. See Dep. Herbert Sohn at 48:19-49:11, ECF No. 15-1 [hereinafter Sohn Dep.]. The incident was also captured by Omni's security camera, which records 24-hour footage of the hotel's lobby. See Dep. Ralphaello McKeython at 33:8-37:9, ECF No. 17-3 [hereinafter McKeython Dep.]. The recorded surveillance footage shows a man attempting to flatten the mat shortly after Ms. Martin's fall. See Dep. Lawrence C. Dinoff at 147:2-148:1, ECF No. 14-3 [hereinafter Dinoff Dep.]. Ralphaello McKeython, Omni's security director, testified that he had the Subject-mat removed from the lobby after Ms. Martin's fall and that he examined it, but did not find any defects. See McKeython Dep. at 17:20-18:4, 19:6-14.

         For purposes of this lawsuit, Ms. Martin retained an expert witness, Lawrence C. Dinoff. Mr. Dinoff is an architectural engineer who has been involved in developing the American Society for Testing and Materials' (“ASTM”) national standards for safe walkways. See Dinoff Dep. at 54:2-56:11. Those guidelines include specific standards regarding the use of mats and the avoidance of tripping hazards. See Id. at 54:18-55:1; see also Rule 26(a)(2) Stmt. Lawrence C. Dinoff at 1-2, Pl.'s Ex. 12, ECF No. 15-3, [hereinafter Dinoff Stmt.]. And Mr. Dinoff testified that he has “been involved in the development of every walkway safety standard coming out of ASTM for more than ten years, ” and “wrote the section dealing with the need to keep floor mats tight to the floor without loose edges.” Dinoff Dep. at 55:7-13.

         Mr. Dinoff examined the Subject-mat on February 25, 2016, at which point the mat was not in a wrinkled condition.[1] See Dinoff Dep. at 127:6-12; 128:3-9. Based on his examination, Mr. Dinoff came to two conclusions. First, he concluded that the mat had what he called “short-term memory”-that, in other words, the mat would “self-correct[]” to the configuration it had held at the time when it was laid, whether that initial condition was wrinkled or flat. Id. at 64:8- 21, 102:20-103:15, 126:2-9. From the hotel security video footage and Dr. Sohn's photographs, Mr. Dinoff observed that the Subject-mat's wrinkles were present in substantially the same location both before and after Ms. Martin's fall. Id. at 63:16-64:21; see also Id. at 98:7-101:15. Based on the mat's “short-term memory, ” this fact suggested to Mr. Dinoff that the mat would not “change its curled-edge configuration in the short term, ” and “could not unmake a ripple in a short period of time.” Id. at 64:11-64:21. Thus, Mr. Dinoff concluded that, in his opinion, at the time of Ms. Martin's fall the wrinkles in the Subject-mat were “[p]ermanent” features of the mat “in the short term.” Id. at 64:17-21.

         Second, Mr. Dinoff concluded that those wrinkles could only be formed over a lengthy period of time. See Id. at 64:11-16, 125:4-127:12. For that reason, Mr. Dinoff opined that the wrinkles were likely formed by the manner in which the mat had been stored and thus must have been present at the time the mat was laid. See Id. at 57:12-61:8, 64:17-21, 125:4-127:3. He testified that transitory wrinkles-or wrinkles formed, for example, by a disruption caused by another hotel guest traversing the mat-could not occur, because it would take “hours and hours, if not days and days” for wrinkles like the ones that caused Ms. Martin's fall to form. Id. at 125:4-7, 127:3-12. He stated that “[a] mat of this construction will not take on new shapes in a short period of time.” Id. at 127:10-12. By contrast, Mr. Dinoff concluded that storage of the mat for a substantial period of time in a folded position could create such wrinkles. See Id. at 57:12- 61:8. Thus, Mr. Dinoff concluded that the mat must have been in a wrinkled condition when it was laid, and that the wrinkles could not have been caused by another guest at the hotel. See Id. at 63:16-66:13; see also Dinoff Stmt. at 7.

         Neither party knows definitively when the mat was laid or who laid it. See, e.g., Pl.'s Stmt. Material Facts ¶ 18, ECF No. 15 (stating that, without additional video footage, “nobody can determine how long the mat was in place”). Omni admits that mats are generally laid in the lobby by attendants to ensure that the entrance and interior walkway are kept dry during inclement weather. See Def.'s Answers. & Objs. Pl.'s Interrog. at 9, ECF No. 15-2, [hereinafter Def.'s 1st Interrog. Answers]; Def.'s Suppl. Answers & Objs. Pl.'s 2d Interrog. at 3, ECF No. 14-4, [hereinafter Def.'s 2d Interrog. Answers].[2] But weather reports contained in the record indicate that it rained on each day between June 8, 2014, and June 12, 2014, the day of Ms. Martin's fall. See Pl.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 15-3. Omni is also unaware of who laid the Subject-mat or how it was stored. See Def.'s 2d Interrog. Answers at 3.

         Now before the Court is Omni's motion for summary judgment, which contends that Ms. Martin is unable to establish from the record evidence that Omni had actual or constructive notice of any dangerous condition caused by the mat. See generally Def.'s Stmt. P. & A. Supp. Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 14 [hereinafter Def.'s Mem. Supp.]. Ms. Martin argues, however, that a reasonable jury could conclude that Omni created the dangerous condition by placing the mat in the lobby with wrinkled edges (and that other persons traversing the mat could not have caused the wrinkles) and that, to the extent Omni asserts that it lacked notice of any dangerous condition, an adverse inference is warranted in light of the fact that Omni did not preserve more of the hotel surveillance videotape. See Pl.'s Mem. P. & A. Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 1-2, ECF No. 16 [hereinafter Pl.'s Opp'n]. As explained below, the Court will grant Omni's motion.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court must grant summary judgment if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A “material” fact is one capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute is “genuine” if there is enough evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-movant. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The inquiry under Rule 56 is essentially “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

         The principal purpose of summary judgment is to determine whether there is a genuine need for trial by disposing of factually unsupported claims or defenses. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). The movant bears the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. In response, the non-movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant may not rest upon mere allegations or denials but must instead present affirmative evidence. Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must “eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007). All underlying facts and inferences must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-movant. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Nevertheless, conclusory assertions offered without any evidentiary support do not establish a genuine issue for trial. See Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         To succeed in a negligence action under District of Columbia law, the plaintiff “bears the burden of proof on three issues: ‘the applicable standard of care, a deviation from that standard by the defendant, and a causal relationship between that deviation and the plaintiff's injury.'” Toy v. District of Columbia, 549 A.2d 1, 6 (D.C. 1988) (quoting Meek v. Shepard, 484 A.2d 579, 581 (D.C. 1984)).[3] The dispute in this case revolves almost exclusively around the second prong: demonstrating a deviation from the standard of care.

         A. Standard of Care

         In the District of Columbia, “there is only one standard of care for persons lawfully upon the landowner's or land occupier's property, ” namely, “reasonable care under the circumstances.” Sandoe v. Lefta Assocs., 559 A.2d 732, 742 (D.C. 1988). In some cases, however, “when the subject matter at issue is so distinctly related to some science, profession, business, or occupation as to be beyond the ken of the average lay person, ” what constitutes reasonable care in that context “must be established through expert testimony.” Rajabi v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 650 A.2d 1319, 1322 (D.C. 1994). In such cases, an expert must “articulate and refer to a standard of care by which the defendant's actions can be measured” and “at the very least, ” specify both “what standards were violated and how they were violated.” Sullivan v. AboveNet Commc'ns, Inc., 112 A.3d 347, 357-58 (D.C. 2015) (quoting District of Columbia v. Carmichael, 577 A.2d 312, 314 ...


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