21 F.3d 1157 (D.C. Cir. 1994), 92-7203, Boodoo v. Cary

Docket Nº:92-7203, 92-7204.
Citation:21 F.3d 1157
Party Name:Stella V. BOODOO, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Jerome CARY; Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:April 26, 1994
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

Page 1157

21 F.3d 1157 (D.C. Cir. 1994)

Stella V. BOODOO, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

Jerome CARY; Washington Metropolitan Area Transit

Authority, Defendants-Appellees.

Nos. 92-7203, 92-7204.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

April 26, 1994

Argued Feb. 2, 1994.

Page 1158

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 89-3448).

J. Lincoln Woodard, Washington, DC, argued the cause and filed the brief, for appellants.

Gerard J. Stief, Associate Gen. Counsel, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Washington, DC, argued the cause, for appellees. With him on the brief were Robert L. Polk, Gen. Counsel, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and Robert J. Kniaz, Associate Gen. Counsel, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Washington, DC. Linda Lazarus, Washington, DC, entered an appearance.

Before: EDWARDS, BUCKLEY and SENTELLE, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge HARRY T. EDWARDS.

HARRY T. EDWARDS, Circuit Judge:

This case arises from a tragic automobile accident in which one person was killed and another seriously injured. The accident occurred early one September morning on Bladensburg Road in Prince George's County, Maryland. On that morning, a Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority bus ("Metrobus") was travelling northbound when it hit a Chevrolet Camaro that was turning across the northbound lane from the southbound lane. As a result of the collision, the Camaro was split in half; a passenger in the front seat of the car, Rose Marie Johnson, was killed; and a passenger in the rear seat, nine-year-old Ruskin Quanyoung, Jr., was injured.

The decedent's personal representative, Stella Boodoo, and Quanyoung, joined by his father, sued in District Court for wrongful death and personal injury, respectively. Metro was named as a defendant in both lawsuits. Metro, in turn, filed a third-party action against the driver of the car. The District Court consolidated these actions, with the liability issues tried before a jury, and the damages portion of the case reserved for a separate proceeding.

At trial, both parties presented accident reconstruction experts, qualified to offer their opinions on the causes of the accident. Plaintiffs' expert, Dr. Yau Wu, testified that, based on his analysis, the Metrobus had exceeded the posted speed limit by approximately 20 miles per hour; Dr. Wu testified further that, in his opinion, the accident would not have occurred if the bus had not been speeding. Defendant's expert disagreed with Dr. Wu, testifying that his own analysis indicated that excessive speed was not a cause of the accident because, in his opinion, the collision would have occurred even if the bus was within the posted speed limit.

The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, apparently believing that the bus was

Page 1159

speeding and that the excessive speed was a cause of the accident. The trial judge, however, entered a judgment as a matter of law for Metro, holding plaintiffs failed to prove proximate cause. In taking the case from the jury and rendering judgment for Metro, the trial judge was convinced that Dr. Wu had conceded under cross-examination that the accident would have occurred even if the bus was travelling the posted speed limit.

We hold that the trial judge erred in entering a judgment contrary to the jury's verdict. A thorough review of the record reveals that Dr. Wu consistently maintained at trial that the accident was rendered unavoidable by the excessive speed of the Metrobus. Reading Dr. Wu's testimony as a whole, we find he did not concede that the Metrobus accident would have occurred even if the bus were moving 30 miles per hour ("m.p.h."). And giving the benefit of all favorable factual inferences to appellants, we believe that a reasonable jury fairly could have found that excessive speed was the proximate cause of the collision. We therefore reverse the judgment of the District Court, reinstate the jury's verdict, and remand the case for a determination of damages.

I. BACKGROUND

  1. The Accident

    On September 1, 1989, a Metrobus collided with a Chevrolet Camaro. At the time of the accident, the Metrobus was travelling northbound on Bladensburg Road in Prince George's County, Maryland. Bladensburg Road has five lanes where the accident took place; two lanes are for northbound traffic, two lanes are for southbound traffic, and the center lane is for left turns from either direction. See Trial Transcript II ("Tr.") at 18. The speed limit along the roadway was 30 m.p.h.

    The Camaro was struck as it turned left from the southbound lane into the path of the Metrobus. The force of the collision split the Camaro in half, and front-seat passenger Rose Marie Johnson was killed. Ruskin Quanyoung, Jr. was asleep in the rear seat of the car and was seriously injured.

  2. The Proceeding Below

    Quanyoung and Stella Boodoo--the mother and personal representative of the deceased--filed suit in District Court. The plaintiffs alleged that Metro, among others, was responsible for the wrongful death of Rose Marie Johnson and for the personal injuries suffered by Quanyoung. In turn, Metro filed a third-party complaint for contribution against the driver of the Camaro. The District Court consolidated these actions, and on January 8, 1992, entered a default judgment against the Camaro driver in favor of Metro. Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority Appendix ("Metro App.") 75. In February 1992, a five-day jury trial was held on the liability issues.

    At trial, both sides relied heavily on accident reconstruction experts. Plaintiffs' expert, Dr. Yau Wu, was called to reconstruct the accident and to present his opinion on what caused it. The first step in Dr. Wu's analysis was to identify the point where the two vehicles collided ("point of impact"). He based his determination on several factors: First, Wu noted a point where the skid marks shifted angles on the pavement--this he attributed to the impact. Tr. II at 126. Second, Wu testified that gouge marks, left from portions of the car being trapped beneath the bus, appeared, as he would expect, some 10 feet from the point of impact. Tr. II at 127, 147. Third, Dr. Wu took into account the location where various pieces of the car came to rest, and the relative weight disparity between the much heavier bus and the lighter car. Tr. II at 102-103, III at 20-21.

    In the second step of his testimony, Dr. Wu analyzed the skid marks left from the accident. On this point, Dr. Wu relied on the original police report prepared by Officer Richard Ratcliff, which depicted a continuous skid mark of 150 feet on the road, and photographs of the scene. Dr. Wu described the 150 foot skid as involving three components: (1) 20 feet of pre-impact skid marks; (2) 10 feet of impact marks; and (3) 120 feet of post-impact marks. Tr. II at 116. From the skid marks, Dr. Wu was able to calculate, using standard mathematical methods, the approximate speed the bus must have been travelling. Dr. Wu opined that the pre-impact

    Page 1160

    speed of the bus was 48.3 m.p.h., that the speed during impact was 44 m.p.h. and that the post-impact speed was 42.27 m.p.h. Tr. II at 121, 123-24.

    Dr. Wu assumed an average perception, reaction, brake-activation time ("PRB"), in order to calculate how far the Metrobus was from the Camaro when the driver started to react to the danger of a collision. As he explained at trial, PRB is the normal time it takes a driver to perceive and react to an identified danger, plus the time it takes for the brakes to engage. In Dr. Wu's opinion, a normal person takes one second to perceive a danger ("P"), one second to react to that danger ("R"), and it takes one-half of a second for the brakes of a Metrobus to activate ("B"). Tr. II at 130, 131. Assuming such reaction times, it would have taken about 2.5 seconds (P + R + B) for the bus to begin skidding. Dr. Wu assumed that in this case the Metrobus driver and bus reacted normally to the emergency.

    Using his estimated speed of 50 m.p.h. and the normal PRB time (2.5), Dr. Wu was able to estimate the distance the bus travelled before its brakes locked. Because a vehicle moving 50 m.p.h. travels 74 feet per second ("ft./s"), the bus travelled approximately 185 feet (2.5 X 74) before it started to skid. Dr. Wu thus concluded that the driver must have perceived the accident 190 feet before the bus' brakes locked. 1 Tr. II at 131-32.

    Based on the preceding analysis, Dr. Wu concluded that excessive speed was one of the causes of the accident. Relying on his estimate that the distance from perception to brake-activation was 190 feet, Dr. Wu opined that had the bus been going 30 m.p.h., it would have been able to avoid the accident, because at that speed the bus would have required only 131 feet to stop (2.5 PRB X 44 ft./s + 21 feet of skidding before the bus stops) after the driver first perceived the danger--well short of the point of impact reached by the Metrobus travelling 50 m.p.h. Tr. II at 142.

    On cross-examination, defense counsel attempted to get Dr. Wu to concede the accident would have occurred even if the Metrobus were moving at the 30 m.p.h. speed limit:

    I want you to make the following assumptions: I want you to assume that pre-impact, like you said ... earlier, that there are 20 feet of skids to the point of impact, and I want to use a .7 coefficient of friction, which you stated earlier was the coefficient of friction you used, and I want you to assume that the bus was going 30 miles an hour before it started to brake.... Isn't it a fact that when I took your deposition, you went through a similar...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP