Jones v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 1:05CV11.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
Citation378 F.Supp.2d 718
Docket NumberNo. 1:05CV11.,1:05CV11.
PartiesMary F. JONES, Plaintiff, v. WASH. METRO. AREA TRANSIT AUTH., Defendant.
Decision Date25 July 2005

Robert B. Adams, Gammon & Grange PC, McLean, VA, for Plaintiff.

Donna Lynn Gaffney, Mark Francis Sullivan, Washington, DC, for Defendant.


ELLIS, District Judge.

In this non-diversity personal injury case,1 plaintiff sues for injuries sustained when she tripped on a one-inch ridge in the sidewalk adjacent to defendant's bus-and-train station while transferring between a bus and a train. At issue on summary judgment is the standard of care that defendant must observe with respect to hazards located on its premises.


The record facts material to the instant summary judgment motion are undisputed. Plaintiff Mary F. Jones is a Virginia resident who, at all times relevant to this lawsuit, commuted daily from her home in Arlington, Virginia to her place of employment in Washington, DC. Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") is a municipal corporation charged with operating the public bus and rail system serving the Washington, DC metropolitan area ("the Metro").

At approximately 9:00 a.m. on March 24, 1999, plaintiff, en route to work, disembarked the 16-U WMATA Metrobus at the Pentagon Metro Station, a transit station in Arlington owned and operated by defendant. From the bus's drop-off point,2 plaintiff began walking toward an escalator descending to the rail platform, where, she intended, she would board a train to transport her to Washington, DC. Before reaching the escalator, plaintiff tripped on what she described as an "uneven seam," approximately one inch high, in the granite walkway leading to the escalator. As a result, she fell and injured her left knee.

At the time of the accident, WMATA occupied and maintained the walkway leading to the escalator by virtue of an easement. Thus, plaintiff tripped and fell on property occupied and maintained by WMATA as part of its premises at the Pentagon Metro Station. Significantly, the record is devoid of evidence that WMATA had notice that the one-inch seam on which plaintiff tripped was a hazard to persons traversing the area. In the two years preceding plaintiff's accident — 1997 to 1999 — there were no reported trips, falls, or injuries arising from the station walkway, despite the fact that in 1999 alone almost eight million persons entered or exited there,3 substantial numbers of whom must have passed over the uneven seam.4

In January 2005, plaintiff instituted this action to recover for her injuries, claiming over $16,000 in medical expenses and special damages, and a 20 percent permanent impairment of her left knee. The complaint alleges that WMATA negligently maintained the sidewalk and premises where plaintiff tripped. WMATA thereafter moved for summary judgment on plaintiff's claims, and plaintiff filed a brief in opposition. The matter having been fully briefed and argued, the merits of WMATA's motion are addressed here.


The principles governing summary judgment are well-established. A party's motion for summary judgment should be granted if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). In determining whether to grant a party's motion, a court must assess the evidence offered by both parties and "determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial" after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolving all factual disputes in that party's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). To defeat a summary judgment motion, the non-moving party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials, but must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The facts set forth, moreover, must be more than a mere scintilla of evidence; rather, the evidence offered must be sufficient for a reasonable factfinder to find in the non-moving party's favor. See id. at 248-251, 106 S.Ct. 2505.


Here, the parties dispute not the facts, but the nature of the standard of care to which WMATA must be held. More specifically, the parties dispute whether WMATA, as a common carrier of persons,5 had a duty to exercise the highest degree of practical care with respect to the maintenance of the walkway where plaintiff tripped, or merely a duty to exercise ordinary, reasonable care with respect to this walkway. This question is dispositive, as it is well established under Virginia law6 that the failure to correct an irregularity in a sidewalk surface is not a violation of the duty of ordinary care where, as here, the irregularity is an inch or less and not known to be a hazard.7 By contrast, there may exist a jury issue in this case if the applicable standard of care is the highest duty of practical care. Accordingly, the question whether the record facts give rise to a triable issue of negligence — and thus whether summary judgment is appropriate — turns on the issue of WMATA's duty of care. Because this is a legal determination, involving no weighing of evidence or assessments of credibility, resolution by way of summary judgment is appropriate.

It is well-settled, both in Virginia and in other jurisdictions, that a common carrier "must exercise the highest degree of practical care for the safety of its passengers." Crist v. Wash., Va. & Md. Coach Co., 196 Va. 642, 645, 85 S.E.2d 213 (1955); see also Shamblee v. Virginia Transit Co., 204 Va. 591, 593, 132 S.E.2d 712 (1963) ("highest degree of care"); Tri-State Coach Corp. v. Stidham, 191 Va. 790, 795, 62 S.E.2d 894 (1951) ("very high degree of care"); Norfolk-Southern Ry. Co. v. Tomlinson, 116 Va. 153, 156, 81 S.E. 89 (1914) ("highest degree of care"); Kaplan v. Balt. & Ohio R. Co., 207 Md. 56, 113 A.2d 415, 416 (1955) ("utmost degree of care"); Pierce v. Balt. & Ohio R. Co., 99 W.Va. 313, 128 S.E. 832, 833 (1925) ("highest degree of care"). This heightened standard of care, which imposes liability on carriers for passenger injuries resulting from even "the slightest negligence," see Shamblee, 204 Va. at 593, 132 S.E.2d 712, has its origins in the common law, not statutes, and derives from the notions (i) that motorized travel is a particularly dangerous activity, and (ii) that during carriage, passengers are completely dependent on the carrier for their safety. See Va. Ry. & Power Co. v. Dressler, 132 Va. 342, 362, 111 S.E. 243 (1922). As the Supreme Court of Virginia has put it, "[t]he reason for the high degree of care required of carriers is the tender regard the law has for life and limbs, and the fact that the carrier has the selection, control, management and operation of the whole instrumentalities of carriage, and a limited control over and direction of the conduct of the passenger." Id.; see also Balt. & Ohio R.R. Co. v. Wightman's, 70 Va. 431, 445 (1877) ("when carriers undertake to convey passengers by the powerful but dangerous agency of steam, public policy and safety require that they should be held to the greatest possible care and diligence.").

Consistent with this underlying rationale, courts in Virginia and elsewhere have generally held that a carrier's duty of the highest degree of practical care does not extend to the condition of station premises. See Cleveland v. Danville Traction & Power Co., 179 Va. 256, 259-60, 18 S.E.2d 913 (1942) (citing 1 THOMPSON ON NEGLIGENCE § 28) ("the highest degree of care ... applies only to those means and measures of safety which the passenger of necessity must trust wholly to the carrier. It is in general applicable only to the period during which the carrier is in a certain sense the bailee of the person of the passenger.") (emphasis added); Kaplan, 113 A.2d at 416-17 (holding carrier subject to ordinary care standard for maintenance of station premises). Instead, courts have generally held that where the less risky and more commonplace aspects of a carrier's business are concerned, the law imposes on carriers, just as it does with respect to other proprietors of premises, including municipalities, a duty of ordinary care. Thus, courts in Virginia and in neighboring jurisdictions have consistently held carriers to the standard of "reasonably safe and adequate" with regard to "stations and approaches for [the carriers'] patrons." Burr v. Va. Ry. & Power Co., 151 Va. 934, 949, 145 S.E. 833 (1928) (emphasis added); accord Va. Stage Lines v. Newcomb, 187 Va. 677, 679, 47 S.E.2d 446 (1948) (applying ordinary care standard in case of slip-and-fall in bus terminal); Kaplan, 113 A.2d at 417 ("a carrier owes a duty to all persons coming to its station ... to exercise ordinary care to keep the station and the approaches thereto in a reasonably safe condition"); Pierce's, 128 S.E. at 833 ("The care required of a carrier for the protection of a passenger on its premises involves reasonable care to provide maintain safe and adequate stations, platforms, walks, steps, and landings....").

Courts have often framed the question of a carrier's duty of care to a particular plaintiff in terms of the passenger-carrier relationship, holding the duty of the highest degree of practical care applicable only when the plaintiff could be considered the "passenger" of the defendant carrier at the moment the injury sued upon was sustained. See, e.g., Greater Richmond Transit Co. v. Wilkerson, 242 Va. 65, 70, 406 S.E.2d 28 (1991); Tri-State Coach Corp. v. Stidham, 191 Va. 790, 795, 62 S.E.2d 894 (1951); Dressler, 132 Va. at 348, 111 S.E. 243. In this regard, several rules concerning the passenger-carrier relationship have developed, including (i) that a plaintiff's status as a passenger is deemed to commence at or about the time of boarding, see, e.g., Wil...

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