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Whiteru v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 7, 2017

CAMEROON WHITERU, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Okiemute C. Whiteru, ex ux., Plaintiffs,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KETANJI BROWN JACKSON United States District Judge.

         This case concerns the death of Okiemute Whiteru (“Whiteru”), whose body was discovered in the Judiciary Square Metro Station on October 23, 2013. Whiteru suffered an accidental injury inside the Metro Station on October 19, 2013; in the instant lawsuit, Whiteru's parents, Cameroon Whiteru and Agnes Whiteru (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), contend that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) negligently failed to discover Whiteru in time to provide him with life-saving emergency medical assistance. Plaintiffs' negligence claim arises under the common law of the District of Columbia (see Am. Compl., ECF No. 21, ¶¶ 23-30 (Count I)), and based on the alleged negligence, Plaintiffs have also brought a survival action under D.C. Code § 12-101 (see id. ¶¶ 31-34 (Count II)), and a claim for wrongful death pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-2701 (see id. ¶¶ 35-36 (Count III)).

         Before this Court at present is WMATA's motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 27, at 8.)[1] In support of its motion, WMATA argues that the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars Plaintiffs' tort claims (see id.), or alternatively, that WMATA is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiffs have failed to present evidence that is sufficient to establish all of the essential elements of their tort claims (see id.). Plaintiffs oppose WMATA's summary judgment motion on the grounds that WMATA has waived its sovereign immunity for the conduct alleged, and that there are genuine disputes about material facts that pertain to each of the elements of Plaintiffs' negligence accusation. (See Pls.' Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pls.' Opp'n”), ECF No. 28, at 10-15.)

         For the reasons explained fully below, this Court finds that WMATA is not entitled to sovereign immunity for the conduct alleged, and that Plaintiffs have satisfied their burden of bringing forward admissible evidence that could support a reasonable jury finding that WMATA breached a duty of care that it owed to Whiteru and thereby caused his death. As a result, WMATA's motion for summary judgment will be DENIED, and this case will be scheduled for trial. A separate Order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion will follow.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts Pertaining To Whiteru's Death[2]

         Okiemute Whiteru was a 35-year-old attorney who lived and worked in Washington, D.C. (See Pls.' Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (“Pls.' Material Facts”), ECF No. 30, at 3.) Shortly after midnight on Saturday, October 19, 2013, Whiteru rode a D.C. Metro train from the Farragut North Station to the Judiciary Square Station. (See Id. at 3-4.) After Whiteru exited the train, he rode the escalator from the platform up to the mezzanine level of the station. (See Id. at 4.)[3]

         At around 1:07 a.m., Whiteru approached the information kiosk on the mezzanine level of the Judiciary Square station and spoke to Rhonda Brown, the station manager on duty. (See id.; Aff. of William C. Martin, Ex. 1 to Def.'s Reply to Pls.' Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 31-1, at 3.) Brown helped Whiteru pass through the turnstile, and Whiteru proceeded down the escalator to the platform for Shady Grove-bound trains. (See Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 4; Def.'s Mot. at 6.) At the time, the escalator down to the platform was stationary, i.e., it was in “stair mode.” (Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 4.)

         Whiteru stumbled down the last few steps of the escalator and fell onto the train platform. (See Def.'s Mot. at 6.) No one else was on the platform, and Whiteru lay at the base of the escalator for over three and a half minutes before he struggled to his feet. (See Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 5.) After he stood up, Whiteru leaned against the three-foot concrete parapet-a protective wall-that runs along the outside edge of the platform, on the opposite side of where the trains arrive. (See id.) There is a 53-inch gap between the edge of the platform where the parapet is and the station wall (see Investigative Report of Brian L. Mills, Ex. 7 to Pls.' Opp'n, ECF No. 28-7, at 14); the parapet separates the train platform from that gap (see Id. 14-15).[4]

         After approximately 45 seconds of leaning, Whiteru tried to sit on top of the parapet. (See Def.'s Mot. at 5-6.) Less than ten seconds later, at approximately 1:15 a.m., Whiteru fell backwards, over the top of the parapet and into the gap between the platform and the station wall. (See Id. at 7; Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 5; see Def.'s Reply to Pls.' Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (“Def.'s Reply re: Material Facts”), ECF No. 31, at 5.) As a result of this fall, Whiteru suffered severe injuries, including a fracture of his “bony vertebrae at the C-5 level” (see Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 5), but he did not die instantly (see Id. at 13). The parties dispute exactly how long Whiteru was still alive after the fall, but they agree that Whiteru would have survived this accident if he had been discovered by 1:30 a.m.- i.e., 15 minutes after he fell. (See id.; Def.'s Reply re: Material Facts ¶ 16.) Moreover, there is no dispute that if Whiteru had been discovered soon after his accident and had received medical care, he would have survived this accident without any traumatic brain injury. (See Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 13-14.) However, Whiteru was not immediately discovered; he remained behind the parapet wall for more than four and a half days (see Id. at 5-6), and had already died from his injuries by the time he was found (see Id. at 6).

         Four days after Whiteru's fall-on October 23, 2013, at approximately 2:50 p.m.-an anonymous Metro passenger told Metro employee Reginald Herron, who was the station manager on duty at the mezzanine-level kiosk at that time, that he saw a human body behind the parapet. (See Id. at 6.)[5] Rhonda Brown, who happened to be on duty that day, went with Herron to the area of the platform where the passenger had seen the body. (See Id. at 12; Herron Dep., Ex. 3 to Pls.' Opp'n, ECF No. 28-3, at 2-3.) Looking over the parapet, Brown was able to see Whiteru's body in the space between the platform and the station wall without a flashlight or any other equipment. (See Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 12-13.)

         Notably, as the station manager on duty when Whiteru entered the station on October 19, 2013, Rhonda Brown was supposed to inspect the station platform three times after Whiteru's fall-at 1:30 a.m., 2:30 a.m., and when the station closed that night, at 3:15 a.m. (See Id. at 10-11.) Brown signed the station manager checklist indicating that she had completed these inspections (see Station Manager Hourly Checklist, Ex. to Def.'s Mot, ECF No. 27-3, at 2), but had no independent memory of them after Whiteru's body was discovered (see Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 10).[6]

         B. Facts Pertaining To WMATA's Standard Operating Procedures[7]

         WMATA maintains a manual of standard station operating procedures (“SSOPs”) that pertain to the agency's mission, which is “to move customers through the Metrorail system in an efficient, effective and safe manner.” (SSOP, Ex. 4 to Pls.' Opp'n, ECF No. 28-4, at 1.) WMATA station managers must be familiar with and comply with the policies; they must also ensure the procedures are executed properly. (See Id. at 7.)

         SSOP 46.5.4 lays out the procedures that station managers are supposed to use when closing Metro stations. As relevant here, SSOP 46.5.4.12 mandates a “visual inspection” of the station “to ensure that no customers are in the station.” (Id. at 10.) In its entirety, this SSOP states:

Closing Station Managers shall make a visual inspection of the mezzanine and platform area of the station, which includes walking the station platform from end gate to end gate, to ensure that no customers are in the station. Pay special attention to areas of the station where confused customers or customers with diminished capacity might sleep.

Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added).[8] Notably, the directive that a closing station manager's visual inspection “includes walking the station platform from end gate to end gate” was added to the SSOP in September 2010. (Compare Pls.' Material Facts ¶ 7 (current version of the SSOP), with Id. 7-8 (version in effect prior to September 2010).) Thus, at the time of Whiteru's accident, station managers were required to inspect the platform by walking the area in person, even though the mezzanine-level kiosks that station managers sit in are equipped with closed-circuit monitors of the platform area. Moreover, by the date at issue, WMATA had specifically instructed its managers to “[p]ay special attention to areas of the station where intoxicated customers or customers with diminished capacity might sleep[, ]” in contrast to the prior directive, which had used more passive language concerning a closing manager's obligations in this regard. (Compare Id. at 7 (current version of the SSOP), with Id. at 7-8 (version in effect before September 2010, which stated that “[s]pecial attention should be given” to such areas).)

         As a station manager on the night of Whiteru's accident, Rhonda Brown was familiar with the prior version of this SSOP, and was also aware of her obligations under the version of the SSOP then in effect. (See Id. at 9-10.)

         C. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed suit against WMATA in Superior Court on May 1, 2015. (See Compl., Ex. 1 to Def.'s Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1-1.) The original complaint asserted (1) a claim for premises liability, (2) a claim for negligence, (3) a survival action pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-101, and (4) a claim for wrongful death pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-2701. (See Id. at 13-19.) WMATA removed the action to federal court on June 8, 2015, pursuant to D.C. Code Ann. § 9-1107.01(81). (See Def.'s Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1, at 1-2.)

         On June 15, 2015, WMATA filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' lawsuit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 5, at 1.) WMATA argued that sovereign immunity barred Plaintiffs' premises liability claim, and that Plaintiffs' complaint failed to state a claim for negligence because it did not identify the relevant duty of care. (See Id. at 5-8.) In their opposition brief, Plaintiffs maintained that sovereign immunity did not bar their premises liability claim because this claim was based on WMATA's “negligent implementation of policy decisions[, ]” and also, that WMATA owed a duty of reasonable care to its passengers. (Pls.' Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 8, at 3.)

         This Court held a hearing on WMATA's motion on November 4, 2015, and it ultimately granted the motion to dismiss in part, and denied it in part, for several reasons. (See Order of Nov. 4, 2015, ECF No. 13.)[9] WMATA answered the three remaining counts of the complaint on November 12, 2015 (see Answer, ECF No. 14), and with WMATA's consent, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on January 7, 2016 (see Am. Compl.). WMATA filed its answer to the amended complaint on the same day (see Answer, ECF No. 22), and the parties proceeded to the discovery phase of the litigation.

         On July 19, 2016, WMATA filed the instant motion for summary judgment, arguing that it is entitled to summary judgment on the basis of its sovereign immunity with respect of each of Plaintiffs' remaining claims, and that, in any event, Plaintiffs have failed to adduce sufficient evidence to support all the essential elements of their negligence-based claim. (See Def.'s Mot. at 1.) Plaintiffs filed a brief in opposition to WMATA's motion on August 18, 2016 (see Pls.' Opp'n), and WMATA filed a reply on September 1, 2016 (see Def.'s Reply to Pls.' Opp'n (“Def.'s Reply”), ECF No. 29). WMATA's summary judgment motion became fully ripe on February 15, 2017, after a series of court-ordered filings related to the parties' statements of material facts. (See Min. Order of Feb. 1, 2017 (ordering Plaintiffs to respond to WMATA's Statement of Material Facts); Pls.' Material Facts, ECF No. 30; Def.'s Reply re: Material Facts, ECF No. 31.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Motions To Dismiss For Lack Of ...


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