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Coleman v. Clark

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 20, 2018

MACISTE COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANN MARIE CLARK and PURDUE UNIVERSITY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Maciste Coleman and defendant Ann Marie Clark collided when Professor Clark made an illegal right turn while driving in the District of Columbia. Mr. Coleman claims that he was injured in the accident and filed this lawsuit alleging that Professor Clark was negligent and that her employer, Purdue University, should be held vicariously liable. Pending before the Court is defendants' motion to dismiss Mr. Coleman's complaint on the ground that the claims are barred by Indiana's sovereign immunity. Upon consideration of defendants' motion, the response and reply thereto, and the applicable law, the Court GRANTS defendants' motion and dismisses plaintiff's complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 28, 2014, Mr. Coleman was operating his motorcycle in the right lane going southbound on 23rd Street N.W. toward Constitutive Avenue in the District of Columbia. Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 1-1 at 8. Mr. Coleman alleges that defendant Ann Marie Clark, a professor at Purdue University, made an illegal right turn that caused her to collide with Mr. Coleman. Id. ¶¶ 6-7, ECF No. 1-1 at 8. Officers from the National Park Service arrived at the scene and spoke with the parties. See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 1, ECF No. 9-1. The Motor Vehicle Traffic Accident Report filed by the National Park Service indicates that Professor Clark was issued a citation for the accident. Id., ECF No. 9-1 at 3. The report further specifies that, while there was damage to the right side of Mr. Coleman's motorcycle, “[n]o injuries were reported.” Id.

         Less than two weeks after the accident, Mr. Coleman's attorney sent a letter to JFW Specialty Co., the third-party claims adjuster handling claims against Purdue. See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 2, ECF No. 9-2. The subject line of the attorney's letter stated that the “Insured” in the matter was “Purdue University.” Id. The letter further indicated that Mr. Coleman had suffered “injuries” but did not specify the nature or severity of the injuries. Id. Mr. Coleman's attorney sent three additional letters to JFW between July 2015 and April 2017. See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss, Exs. 3-5, ECF No. 9-3, 9-4, and 9-5. These letters were addressed only to JFW and did not copy anyone at Purdue or the State of Indiana. See id.

         On June 30, 2017, Mr. Coleman filed suit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against Professor Clark for operating her vehicle “in a negligent, careless and reckless manner.” Compl. ¶ 8, ECF No. 1-1 at 8. Mr. Coleman's complaint also included a respondeat-superior claim against Purdue. Id. ¶¶ 5-18, ECF No. 1-1 at 8-10. Mr. Coleman asserts that, as a result of the accident, he “was violently knocked and thrown about, sustaining severe, painful and permanent injuries to his body as well as severe and protracted shock to his nervous system.” Id. ¶ 10. Mr. Coleman seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $850, 000 for the injuries he sustained as a result of defendants' purported negligence. Id. ¶¶ 14, 18.

         Defendants removed this case on July 28, 2017 based on diversity jurisdiction. See Defs.' Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1. Defendants subsequently filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), arguing that Mr. Coleman's suit is barred by Indiana's sovereign immunity. See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 9. Defendants' motion is ripe for the Court's adjudication.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “A federal district court may only hear a claim over which it has subject-matter jurisdiction; therefore, a Rule 12(b)(1) motion for dismissal is a threshold challenge to a court's jurisdiction.” Gregorio v. Hoover, 238 F.Supp. 3D 37, 44 (D.D.C. 2017) (internal citation and quotation omitted). To survive a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that the court has jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). “Because Rule 12(b)(1) concerns a court's ability to hear a particular claim, the court must scrutinize the plaintiff's allegations more closely . . . than it would under a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Schmidt v. U.S. Capitol Police Bd., 826 F.Supp.2d 59, 65 (D.D.C. 2011) (internal citations omitted). In so doing, the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, but the court need not “accept inferences unsupported by the facts alleged or legal conclusions that are cast as factual allegations.” Rann v. Chao, 154 F.Supp.2d 61, 64 (D.D.C. 2001). In reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), the court “may consider materials outside the pleadings” in determining whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case. Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. Food and Drug Admin., 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendants argue that Mr. Coleman's claims against a state university and a state employee are barred by Indiana's sovereign immunity. Although Indiana waives it sovereign immunity in certain circumstances - including when its agent negligently causes a motor-vehicle collision, see State v. Turner, 153 Ind.App. 197, 199 (1972) - an individual bringing suit against the state must satisfy certain statutory prerequisites prior to filing an action. Defendants assert that Mr. Coleman failed to meet the statutory requirements here by, among other things, not providing prompt notice of his claims as required by the Indiana Tort Claims Act. Defendants urge the Court to apply the Indiana Tort Claims Act based on the principle of comity.

         “[W]hen a federal court exercises diversity . . . jurisdiction over state-law claims, ‘the outcome of the litigation in the federal court should be substantially the same, so far as legal rules determine the outcome of a litigation, as it would be if tried in a State court.'” Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 151 (1988) (quoting Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 109 (1945). In this diversity action, then, the Court must first determine whether District of Columbia courts would apply Indiana's notice-of-claim provision on the basis of comity.[1] As explained more fully below, the Court finds that District of Columbia would apply Indiana's notice provision, that Mr. Coleman failed to provide sufficient notice as required by that law, and that Mr. Coleman's claims against Professor Clark cannot stand.

         A. Comity Requires the Application of Indiana Law

         “Comity principles ensure that foreign law that does not conflict with the law of the forum state may be applied to foster cooperation between sister jurisdictions.” Solomon v. Supreme Court of Fla., 816 A.2d 788, 790 (D.C. 2002). The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has explained that the presumption “‘that the States intended to adopt policies of broad comity toward one another'” applies “equally to the District of Columbia.” Id. (quoting Hall, 440 U.S. at 425). In Solomon, the Court of Appeals upheld “the absolute immunity of the Florida Bar and its agents for conduct related to their performance of disciplinary functions, conducted in the District of Columbia, where equivalent District bar disciplinarily agents would be entitled to such immunity in [D.C.] courts.” Id. at 789-90. In so doing, the Court of Appeals explained that “the District of Columbia courts should, on principles of ...


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