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Coates v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 8, 2018

EARL COATES, Plaintiff
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case stems from a violent incident that occurred on a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“W M A T A ”) bus on August 21, 2015. Plaintiff Earl Coates alleges that armed gunmen approached the bus at a bus stop and turned off its power by accessing an unlocked “shutoff panel” on the bus's ext erio r. The gunmen then attacked the bus, firing multiple gunshots before fleeing. Plaintiff, a passenger on the bus, was struck twice and injured. He brings this lawsuit against WMATA asserting negligence-based causes of action.

         Before the Court is Defendant W M A T A 's [22] Motion for Summary Judgment. W M A T A argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff has not established a standard of care, nor a breach of a standard of care, and because the intervening criminal act that ultimately injured Plaintiff was not foreseeable. Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion. Simply put, a jury could interpret the evidence in this negligence case-including a video that captured the incident-in different ways. It is not a case that is susceptible to summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff originally filed this lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, but Defendant timely removed it to this Court. See Def.'s Notice of Removal, ECF No.1. Defendant then filed a motion to dismiss, which the Court granted-in-part and denied-in-part. See Coates v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., No. CV 15-2006 (CKK), 2016 WL 4543991 (D.D.C. Aug. 31, 2016). The Court agreed with Defendant that Plaintiff's claims were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity to the extent that they were premised on WMATA's use of unlocked shutoff panels on its buses. Id. at *3. The Court also agreed with WMATA that Plaintiff's request for punitive damages was barred. Id. at *6. However, the Court held that Plaintiff's Complaint also contained allegations regarding allegedly negligent actions of W M A T A 's bus driver, Mr. Kenny Lee Jackson, that were separate and distinct from WMATA's decision to use unlocked shutoff panels and, to the extent Plaintiff's claims were based on those allegations, they were not barred by WMATA's sovereign immunity. Id. at *4-5.

         Accordingly, after the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Order on WMATA's motion to dismiss, all that remains in this case are Plaintiff's claims that are factually based on actions or inactions o f t h e W M AT A bus driver that are unrelated to W M A T A 's decision to use unlocked shutoff panels. Those include, for example, that the bus driver “left the bus leaving the door open and all the passengers on board in the dark, ” “made no attempt to turn on the power to the bus leaving all the passengers in peril, ” “was nowhere to be found at the time of shooting, ” took “no steps to turning back on the power to the bus that night after it was disabled, leaving the passengers stranded, ” “facilitated someone to cause foreseeable harm to the passengers including the Plaintiff, ” “abandon[ed] the bus in an area that Defendant knew or should have known is a high crime area, ” and “took no steps to inform passengers of an emergency prior to leaving them to fend for themselves.” Compl., ECF No. 1-3, ¶¶ 14, 15, 18, 30.

         B. Evidence in the Record Relating to Actions and Inactions of WMATA Bus Driver

         Discovery in this case has now closed. The pertinent portions of the record, which includes a video of the incident, can be summarized fairly briefly. Plaintiff was a passenger on a WMATA bus on the evening of August 21, 2015. Several men converged on the bus while it was stopped at a bus stop in Southeast, Washington D.C. One of those individuals cut the power to the bus from an outside shutoff panel. Without power, various devices such as the bus's silent alarm and phone ceased to function. The bus driver exited the bus without speaking to the passengers. On the video footage, he can be seen exiting and walking toward the rear of the bus with his cell phone on and in his hand. The video shows, and the driver confirmed at his deposition, that the driver never actually touched the bus's shutoff panel or any other exterior part of the bus after exiting. After pausing at the rear of the bus for a moment, and perhaps interacting with the individuals who had converged around the bus, the driver then begins to walk away from the bus while continuing to look down at his phone. After he has been walking away from the bus for a period of time, the driver hears gun shots and begins to run. The bus driver testified that he took shelter in nearby woods and called police. The driver eventually returned to the scene once police had arrived, and later filed a report about the incident.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “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). The mere existence of some factual dispute is insufficient on its own to bar summary judgment; the dispute must pertain to a “material” fact. Id. Accordingly, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Nor may summary judgment be avoided based on just any disagreement as to the relevant facts; the dispute must be “genuine, ” meaning that there must be sufficient admissible evidence for a reasonable trier of fact to find for the non-movant. Id.

         In order to establish that a fact is or cannot be genuinely disputed, a party must (a) cite to specific parts of the record-including deposition testimony, documentary evidence, affidavits or declarations, or other competent evidence-in support of its position, or (b) demonstrate that the materials relied upon by the opposing party do not actually establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Conclusory assertions offered without any factual basis in the record cannot create a genuine dispute sufficient to survive summary judgment. See Ass'n of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO v. Dep't of Transp., 564 F.3d 462, 465-66 (D.C. Cir. 2009). Moreover, where “a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact, ” the district court may “consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

         When faced with a motion for summary judgment, the district court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence; instead, the evidence must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, with all justifiable inferences drawn in its favo r. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. If material facts are genuinely in dispute, or undisputed facts are susceptible to divergent yet justifiable inferences, summary judgment is inappropriate. Moore v. Hartman, 571 F.3d 62, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2009). In the end, the district court's task is to determine “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.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 251-52. In this regard, the non-movant must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted).

         III. ...


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