McCoy v. Quadrangle Development Corporation, 82-1444.

Decision Date29 December 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-1444.,82-1444.
Citation470 A.2d 1256
PartiesSuzanne McCOY, et al., Appellants, v. QUADRANGLE DEVELOPMENT COR-PORATION, et al., Appellees.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

William E. Nelson, with whom Frederick B. Abramson and Sherilee S. Nelson, Washington, D.C., were on briefs, for appellants.

William J. Carter, with whom Dwight D. Murray, Edgar T. Bellinger and David R. Rivero, Washington, D.C., were on joint brief, for appellee Salus Corp.

Dennis A. Davison, Washington, D.C., with whom Brian C. Shevlin and Cathy G. Kruvant, Arlington, Va., were on joint brief, for appellees Quadrangle Development Corp., Square Realty, Inc., and Gladstone Associates, Inc.

David A. Levin and W. Scott Sonntag, Upper Marlboro, Md., were on joint brief, for appellee Otis Elevator.

Before TERRY and ROGERS, Associate Judges, and PAIR, Associate Judge, Retired.

PAIR, Associate Judge, Retired:

Appellants-plaintiffs, Suzanne McCoy and Burton B. Hanbury, Jr., co-administrators of the estate of Craig Stewart McCoy, sought pursuant to the District of Columbia Wrongful Death Act, D.C.Code §§ 16-2701 to 2703 (1981), and the District of Columbia Survival Act, D.C.Code §§ 12-101 to 104 (1981), to recover damages for his alleged wrongful death. Following extensive pretrial discovery, appellees-defendants1 jointly moved for a summary judgment on the grounds, among others, that appellants had failed to state a cause of action upon which relief could be granted. After extensive additional briefing, summary judgment was entered in favor of appellees2 This appeal followed.

Appellants challenge the action of the trial court. Specifically, they argue that there were genuine issues of material fact sufficient to require the submission of the case to a jury. The thrust of appellees' response is that appellants failed to present sufficient proof to raise a jury question on the issue of the proximate cause of decedent's death. We reverse and remand.

The undisputed facts surrounding decedent's death, viewed in a light most favorable to appellants,3 are as follows. On the evening of April 27, 1979, Craig Stewart McCoy attended a dinner party with members of his law firm at a restaurant across the street from the firm's offices at 1919 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. Although construction of the new office building had not been completed, decedent's law firm had taken up occupancy on the second floor.4 Sometime around midnight when the party began to break up, McCoy returned to his firm's office building. According to the records of the Kastle Security Card System, which was in operation that night, the decedent entered the premises at approximately 12:15 a.m., and as far as the record shows, he was the only person on the premises at that time. The following morning, April 28, 1979, workmen entered the premises to repair elevator car No. 2, which was found in a stationary position between the mezzanine level and the floor above. Later that same afternoon, the body of decedent was discovered at the bottom of elevator shaft No. 2.5

In their complaint, appellants alleged that the fatal injuries suffered by decedent were the result of appellees' negligence. In particular, appellants alleged that appellees Salus Corporation, Quadrangle Development Corporation, Square Realty, Inc., and Gladstone Associates, Inc. breached their duty owed to decedent and to other invitees by maintaining the building in a hazardous condition and by failing to render the premises, specifically the elevators, safe and usable. Appellants also alleged that appellee Otis Elevator Company breached its duty owed to decedent by designing and placing in commercial use an elevator containing neither a telephone, nor an alarm which sounds outside the premises, in express violation of the District of Columbia Elevator Code, 5E-1 DCRR § 211.1 (1977). Furthermore, appellant alleged as negligence Otis' failure to prevent construction debris and dust from entering the control mechanism of elevator No. 2.

A summary judgment is properly granted only when the pleadings and other materials on file demonstrate that no genuine issue of material fact remains for trial, and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Super.Ct.Civ.R. 56(c); Burch v. Amsterdam Corp., 366 A.2d 1079,

1083-84 (D.C.1976). This strict standard is imposed because summary judgment is considered to be an extreme remedy which should be granted only where it is "quite clear what the truth is." Sartor v. Arkansas Natural Gas Corp., 321 U.S. 620, 627, 64 S.Ct. 724, 728, 88 L.Ed. 967 (1944).

To be successful on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party has the burden to demonstrate the absence of any material factual issue. Any doubt as to whether or not an issue of fact has been raised is sufficient to preclude a grant of summary judgment. Washington Post Co. v. Keogh, 125 U.S.App.D.C. 32, 34, 365 F.2d 965, 967 (1966), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 1011, 87 S.Ct. 708, 17 L.Ed.2d 548 (1967). In this connection, the party opposing the motion need show only that there is sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual issue to require a jury to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth. Franklin Investment Co., Inc. v. Huffman, 393 A.2d 119, 122 (D.C.1978).

In reviewing the trial court's summary judgment ruling, it is not the function of this court to resolve factual issues, but rather merely to determine whether any relevant factual issues exist. International Underwriters, Inc. v. Boyle, 365 A.2d 779, 782 (D.C.1976). To determine whether an issue of fact existed, our examination must take into account the pleadings, depositions, admissions on file and affidavits. Burleson v. Burleson, 277 A.2d 647, 649 (D.C.1971).6 We have reviewed the trial court's ruling and conclude that the various pleadings, interrogatories, and depositions before us raise genuine questions of fact which should have been submitted to the jury.

Appellants alleged that appellees' negligence caused decedent to either fall down an open elevator shaft, or to slip and fall while attempting to escape from an inoperable elevator cab. Appellees, in response, argued that the record discloses no evidence relating decedent's injuries to any alleged negligence on their part. They insisted that since the jury could have only speculated as to whether decedent's death was proximately caused by a malfunctioning of the elevator, a summary judgment was warranted. It is basic law that the proximate cause of an injury is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury. Only if there were absolutely no facts or circumstances from which a jury could reasonably have found that appellees were negligent and that such negligence was the proximate cause of the injury, would the question have been one for the court. But if, as here, the facts are such as to cause reasonable men to differ, then the question is clearly one for the determination of the jury. Munsey v. Webb, 37 App.D.C. 185, 188 (1911), aff'd, 231 U.S. 150, 34 S.Ct. 44, 58 L.Ed. 162 (1913). Counsel for appellees argue that the trial court was correct in granting a summary judgment, as there were no facts or circumstances from which a jury could have reasonably concluded that decedent's injuries were in any way caused by a defective elevator cab. They claim that decedent's death could have been caused by any one of a number of reasons — his own negligence, homicide or suicide. Thus, appellees argue, the proximate cause of the accident would necessarily have been a matter of conjecture and speculation. We disagree.

The fact that no one knew with any degree of certainty how decedent got to the bottom of the elevator shaft was not fatal to appellants' case. Where there are no eyewitnesses to an accident and the cause thereof cannot be established by direct proof, then the facts which can be established circumstantially may justify an inference by the jury that negligent conditions produced the injury.7 In such a case a jury is not left in the "domain of speculation, but they have circumstances upon which, as reasonable minds, they may ground their conclusions." Parker v. Seaboard Coastline Railroad, 573 F.2d 1004, 1009 (8th Cir.1978), quoting St. Louis I.M. & S. Ry. Co. v. Hempfling, 107 Ark. 476, 485, 156 S.W. 171, 174 (1913). Consequently, we hold that there was a reasonable showing by appellants that appellees were negligent and that such negligence could have been the proximate cause of decedent's death. Since its installation, elevator No. 2 had a chronic history of problems.8 In fact, just a few days prior to decedent's death, elevator No. 2 was shut down because its cab had not been leveling properly. An Otis repairman, unable to fix the elevator, referred the problem to Otis' service department. There is no indication, however, that elevator No. 2 had ever been adequately repaired by the Otis service department.

Furthermore, two individuals testified on depositions that they had experienced trouble with elevator No. 2...

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