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Tripmacher v. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 29, 2017




         Plaintiff tripped and fell at her nephew's wedding reception, seriously injuring herself. She filed a personal injury lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, alleging that the owner and operator of the reception venue was liable for negligently failing to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition. Defendant removed the action to this Court. In managing this case, I set deadlines for, inter alia, the timely designation of expert witnesses. Plaintiff missed her deadline once, then after having been granted a second chance, missed it again. Presently before the Court is defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #17]. Defendant argues that plaintiffs failure to timely designate an expert is dispositive because D.C. tort-law requires expert testimony to establish the standard of care applicable to this case. Upon consideration of the pleadings, relevant law, and the entire record herein, the Court will GRANT the Motion and enter judgment for defendant.


         The happy couple married in August 2015. To mark the joyous occasion, they invited their family and friends to celebrate at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C. Def.'s Statement Mat. Facts ¶¶ 1-2 ("Def.'s SMF") [Dkt. #17-1]; Pl.'s Statement Mat. Facts ¶¶ 1-2 ("Pl.'s SMF") [Dkt. #19]. Among the many guests was plaintiff Karyn Tripmacher, a retired special-education teacher and the aunt of the groom. Def.'s SMF ¶3; Pl.'s SMF ¶3. Unfortunately, not all went well for Tripmacher that evening. At approximately 11:00 p.m. she decided to leave the Astor Ballroom. As she did, she tripped-and fell. Def.'s SMF ¶ 4; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 4. According to her deposition, Tripmacher sustained serious injuries as a result of her fall, including fractures to her finger, ribs, and vertebrae, as well as other injuries requiring an emergency hip replacement. See Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. ("Opp'n") [Dkt. #19], Ex. 1, Tr. of Karyn Tripmacher Dep. 43:13-44:5, 51:11-19 ("Tripmacher Dep.") [Dkt. #19-1].

         Not surprisingly, the precise details are in dispute. None of the wedding guests or hotel staff witnessed Tripmacher's fall. Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 7-9; Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 7-9. Tripmacher believes that she tripped over a temporary wheelchair ramp connecting the Astor Ballroom to the Astor Terrace. Compl. ¶ 5 [Dkt. #1-2]. The ramp in question was about five feet wide and about twenty-six inches long. Opp'n, Ex. 4, Tr. of Oliver A. Beckford Dep. 15:14-18 ("Beckford Dep.") [Dkt. #19-1]. The carpenter who built the ramp estimated that it was four or five inches tall at its highest point and that its twenty-six inch length gave the ramp an incline of thirty to forty degrees. Id. at 15:19-16:1, 22:19-21.[1]The ramp was covered in red carpet similar to that covering the ballroom floor. Id. at 20:5-21. Although the ramp did not have handrails, its edges were marked with yellow tape about one or two inches wide. Opp'n, Ex. 2, Decl. of John Mircovich ("Mircovich Decl.") ¶¶ 10-11 [Dkt. #19-1]. Photographs in the record show that the ramp was positioned in front of a set of double doors in a manner that would enable a wheelchair to clear the single stair between the Astor Ballroom and the Astor Terrace. See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 1 [Dkt. #17-4]; Mircovich Decl, Ex. 1 [Dkt. #19-1, at 18]. Although Tripmacher concedes that she did not see the ramp when she tripped, Pl.'s SMF ¶ 6, according to her deposition she "know[s] for a fact that it was the ramp" that she tripped over because she "can't imagine [there] was anything else on the floor." Tripmacher Dep. 39:2-40:12; see also Mircovich Decl. ¶ 15 ("I observed nothing except the ramp that could have caused my aunt to trip or slip and fall.").

         Tripmacher also testified that the Astor Ballroom was "very crowded" the night of the wedding reception and that the tables in the ballroom "were so close together" that movement between them was difficult. Tripmacher Dep. 81:9-16. In addition, she stated that the ballroom was dimly lit. Id. at 31:6-17. John Mircovich, another guest at the wedding and the husband of Tripmacher's niece, submitted a sworn affidavit also attesting that "[t]he ballroom was dimly lit." Mircovich Decl. ¶ 13. The director of banqueting at the St. Regis Hotel, Hamid Azimi, testified that the lights in the Astor Ballroom were dimmed to approximately fifty percent of their full brightness during the reception. Def.'s Reply Supp. Summ. J. [Dkt. #20], Ex. 4, Tr. of Hamid Azimi Dep. 43:18-47:7 ("Azimi Dep.") [Dkt. #20-4]. Tripmacher stated, when shown a reference photo, that she believes the lights were set "darker" than fifty percent. Tripmacher Dep. 86:8-18.

         On December 22, 2015, Tripmacher filed suit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, alleging that Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. ("Starwood" or "defendant"), the owner and operator of the St. Regis Hotel, negligently breached its "duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to keep the premises reasonably safe for persons lawfully upon the property, " Compl. ¶ 9, and that, as a result of this breach, Tripmacher experienced injuries entitling her to $2 million in damages, plus costs and interests, id. ¶11. Invoking this Court's diversity jurisdiction, Starwood promptly removed the action here. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441; Def.'s Pet. Removal ¶¶ 5-6 [Dkt. #1-1].

         On March 7, 2016, upon joint motion of the parties, I entered a scheduling order setting, inter alia, deadlines for expert designations. Pursuant to the initial schedule, Tripmacher's expert designations were due by June 1, 2016, and Starwood's by July 1, 2016. Tripmacher's deadline came and went without an expert designation. Then, on June 23, the parties jointly requested that I modify the scheduling order such that plaintiffs expert designations would be due August 1, 2016, and defendant's by September 1, 2016. Joint Mot. Extend Scheduling Order 2 [Dkt. #11]. I granted the motion a few days later. Unfortunately for Tripmacher, she failed to take advantage of this second chance; August 1 came and went with no further activity on the docket. On September 1, Starwood designated an orthopedic surgeon as its expert witness. See Def.'s Rule 26(a)(2) Expert Designation [Dkt. #12]. One week later, Tripmacher moved for leave to late-file an expert designation, explaining that "due to an internal scheduling error, the deadline to name expert witnesses of August 1, 2016, did not make it onto the actual calendar for the [p]laintiff, " and that she had not discovered the error until August 29. Pl.'s Mot. Leave to Late-File Rule 26(a)(2) Expert Designation & Report ¶ 5 ("Pl.'s Mot. to Late-File") [Dkt. #13]. Plaintiff did not explain why it took an additional ten days after the discovery of her error to seek leave to late-file. In any event, Starwood timely opposed the motion, and on October 11, 2016, 1 denied Tripmacher's request for leave to late-file.

         Starwood filed the instant motion for summary judgment in December 2016. Briefing on the Motion was completed in January 2017, and I took the Motion under advisement shortly thereafter.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the record demonstrate 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 fact is material if it 'might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ' and a dispute about a material fact is genuine 'if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Steele v. Schafer, 535 F.3d 689, 692 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). To defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must "designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (quotation marks omitted). In determining whether there is a genuine dispute about material facts, the court "must view the evidence 'in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and ... draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.'" Grosdidier v. Broad. Bd. of Governors, Chairman, 709 F.3d 19, 23-24 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (quoting Talavera v. Shah, 638 F.3d 303, 308 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (alteration in original). Moreover, if the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, " summary judgment may be granted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.


         Tripmacher pursues a negligence claim against Starwood. In the District of Columbia, "[t]he elements of a cause of action for negligence are a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty by the defendant, and damage to the interests of the plaintiff, proximately caused by the breach." Woods v. District of Columbia, 63 A.3d 551, 553 (D.C. 2013) (quoting Taylor v. District of Columbia, 116 A.2d 1208, 1214 (D.C. 2001)).[2] "[T]he applicable standard for determining whether an owner or occupier of land has exercised the proper level of care to a person lawfully upon his premises is reasonable care under all of the circumstances." Night & Day Mgmt., LLC v. Butler, 101 A.3d 1033, 1038 (D.C. 2014) (quoting D.C. Hous. Auth. v. Pinkney, 970 A.2d 854, 866 (D.C. 2009)). D.C. courts often require expert testimony to prove the standard of care. See Varner v. District of Columbia, 891 A.2d 260, 267-68 (D.C. 2006) (collecting cases). Where the subject of the alleged breach is "so distinctly related to some science, profession, or occupation as to be beyond the ken of the average lay juror, " the plaintiff must produce expert testimony. Night & Day Mgmt., 101 A.3d at 1039 (quoting Varner, 891 A.2d at 265). However, if the alleged negligence occurred in a context "within the realm of common knowledge and everyday experience, the plaintiff is not required to adduce expert testimony." Id. at 1038-39 (quoting Tolu v. Ayodeji, 945 A.2d 596, 601 (D.C. 2008)).

         Starwood contends Tripmacher cannot carry her burden in this case because she failed to designate an expert witness capable of establishing the applicable standard of care and who can opine as to whether that standard was breached when the St. Regis Hotel placed the temporary wheelchair ramp in the Astor Ballroom. Mem. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 5-9 [Dkt. #17-2]. Tripmacher responds that no expert is required because a lay jury is capable of assessing the "relative dangerousness" of the ramp based upon their own experience. Opp'n 7; see also Id. at 13 ("Starwood's negligence consists of creating a tripping hazard and failing to prevent invitees from falling over it. This is not too convoluted or recondite for a lay jury to understand."). She identifies several problems that she believes to be within the ken of the average lay juror. These include the specifications of the wheelchair ramp itself, including its color, size, and lack of handrails, as well as the number of people and the ...

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