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Chow v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 23, 2019

TEMAN CHOW, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         A young tourist suffered every commuter's nightmare when his foot and then hand were mangled in an escalator at the Smithsonian Metrorail Station in Washington, D.C. Teman Chow and his parents sued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), which owns and operates the station, alleging various negligence claims. WMATA has moved to dismiss the Chows' Complaint in part, arguing that several of their claims are time barred or barred by sovereign immunity. For the reasons below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part WMATA's motion.

         I.

         According to the Complaint, in the summer of 2012, then-14-year-old Teman Chow and his family traveled from their home in Canada to vacation in Washington, D.C. Compl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 1. After touring the National Mall one evening, the Chows boarded an escalator at the Smithsonian Metrorail Station. Id. ¶ 13. At the bottom of the escalator, Teman's sandal and foot got caught between the escalator stair and the bottom comb plate. Id. ¶ 14. The escalator continued to run even though his foot was stuck, causing him severe pain. Id. ¶ 16.

         Teman instinctively reached down to try to free his foot. Id. ¶ 17. But things only got worse. As Teman tried to rescue his foot, the teeth of the comb plate impaled his hand, which also became trapped between the escalator's still-rotating stairs and the comb plate. Id. ¶ 18. Even with his foot and hand lodged between the escalator stairs and the comb plate, the escalator continued to function at full power, grinding away at Teman's foot and hand. Id. ¶ 19. No. automatic safety shutoff mechanism ever engaged. Id. ¶¶ 16, 19.

         Meanwhile, Teman's parents watched in horror. Id. ¶ 20. His father tried to activate the emergency stop button, but the escalator did not stop. Id. Eventually, another WMATA customer alerted the station manager who stopped the escalator, while other customers called 9-1-1. Id. ¶¶ 21-22.

         Emergency medical technicians arrived, but they were unable to remove Teman's hand from the comb plate. Id. ¶ 23. They ultimately removed the entire comb plate, still clenched to Teman's hand. Id. ¶¶ 23-24. They rushed Teman to National Children's Hospital, and doctors treated him for a severe foot injury and multiple severe injuries to his hand, which the doctors termed a “de-gloving.” Id. ¶¶ 25-26.

         The Chows allege that Teman's injuries stem from WMATA's negligence in its operation and maintenance of the escalator. Id. ¶ 27. First, they assert that the escalator was in disrepair. Id. ¶ 15. The bottom comb plate, they claim, was missing at least three teeth, and those missing teeth allowed his sandal and foot to become trapped. See Id. ¶¶ 61-67. And, according to them, the escalator's safety systems were not functioning properly. See Id. ¶ 47b. A comb-step impact device should cut power to the escalator if an object becomes trapped between the comb plate and the rotating steps, and an emergency stop button should stop the escalator when pushed. See id. ¶ 35. But the Chows allege that neither of these systems activated properly during the incident. Id. ¶¶ 20, 36.

         According to them, WMATA knew that the escalator's safety systems were malfunctioning. See Id. ¶ 39. Indeed, they claim that just a day before the incident, WMATA inspected the escalator and determined that the “comb plate, steps, and up-thrust safety devices” were not in good condition. Id. ¶ 38. And an inspector recommended that WMATA replace the broken comb plate. Id. Even so, WMATA allowed customers to ride the escalator, unwarned of the danger lurking beneath their feet. The Chows allege negligence claims, including negligent maintenance, failure to warn, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Id. ¶¶ 43-89. They also seek punitive damages. Id. ¶¶ 90-92.

         WMATA has moved to dismiss three of the Chows' claims under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Def.'s Mot to Dismiss, ECF No. 13. First, it argues that Teman's parents' claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is time barred. Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot to Dismiss (“Def.'s Mem.”) at 4-5, ECF No. 13-1.[1] The Chows now concede as much. Pls.' Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss (“Pls.' Opp'n”) at 3, ECF No. 14-1. Next, WMATA argues that sovereign immunity bars the claims for negligent training and punitive damages. See Def.'s Mem. at 7-11, 16-18. Teman agrees that his punitive damages claim cannot proceed and affirmatively states that he has not brought a claim for negligent training. Pls.' Opp'n at 3, 13. The Court will therefore grant WMATA's motion as to these claims.

         Finally, according to WMATA, sovereign immunity bars Teman's claim for failure to warn. Def.'s Mem. at 11-16. But for the reasons below, the Court will deny WMATA's Motion to Dismiss that claim and grant Teman jurisdictional discovery.

         II.

         “[S]overeign immunity claims are jurisdictional.” Burkhart v. WMATA, 112 F.3d 1207, 1216 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Thus, they are properly evaluated under Rule 12(b)(1). See Loughlin v. United States, 393 F.3d 155, 162-63 (D.C. Cir. 2004); see also Whiteru v. WMATA, 258 F.Supp.3d 175, 181-82 (D.D.C. 2017).

         Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, they “presume[] that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). To survive a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a plaintiff must establish that the Court has jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). “When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the court must treat the complaint's factual allegations as true and afford the plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Jeong Seon Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d 95, 103 (D.D.C. 2016) (cleaned up). In this context, courts may also ‚Äúconsider the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's ...


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