Todd v. MTA

Decision Date14 February 2003
Docket NumberNo. 61,61
Citation816 A.2d 930,373 Md. 149
PartiesKenneth TODD v. MASS TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Damon A. Trazzi (Trazzi & Grasso on brief), Timonium, for appellant.

Laura C. Walters (Drechsler, Larkin & Walters, P.C., on brief), Baltimore, for appellee.

Argued before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL and BATTAGLIA, JJ.

BATTAGLIA, Judge.

Kenneth Todd (hereinafter "Mr. Todd") sued the Mass Transit Administration (hereinafter "MTA") for personal injuries that he sustained when he was attacked by other passengers on an MTA bus. The novel issue presented in this case is whether MTA had a duty to take affirmative action to protect Mr. Todd from the attack. MTA prevailed on its motion for summary judgment before the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse.

I. Background

On the holiday evening of July 4, 2000, at about 10 o'clock, Mr. Todd was a passenger on a bus operated by the MTA in Baltimore City. He had chosen to sit just behind the rear exit doors in an aisle seat that faced the front of the bus. At one of the bus's stops during Mr. Todd's ride, a group of approximately fifteen to twenty "young kids" boarded the bus, filling the bus to its capacity. The juveniles immediately began "irritating" and "cursing" other passengers near the front of the bus. Although other passengers complained to the bus driver about the kids' behavior, the bus driver took no action to quiet the youths. The group of kids continued to harass passengers as they "worked their way" to the back of the bus toward Mr. Todd. About five minutes after the juveniles boarded the bus and while Mr. Todd was "minding [his] business," one of the kids "struck him in the back of [his] head." Mr. Todd reacted by asking the group of kids, "[W]hat[`s] the problem?" The entire group then immediately "jumped on" Mr. Todd, punching, "stomping," and "kicking" him. Although Mr. Todd attempted to shield himself, the attackers struck his face, shoulder, and lower back. The attack lasted four to five minutes until the bus driver, Cedric Rolle (hereinafter "Mr. Rolle"), stopped the bus, allowing the attackers to flee.

While Mr. Todd's attack was underway, another passenger yelled, "Bus driver, stop the bus. They are beating up this man back here. Stop the bus." At the time when Mr. Rolle heard this exclamation, he was attempting to cross the Orleans Street Bridge in a westbound direction. The travel lanes on the bridge, however, were congested with illegally parked cars from people who were watching an ongoing July 4th fireworks presentation. Although no other vehicles on the bridge were moving, Mr. Rolle continued his course, focused on maneuvering the "creeping" bus through the maze of illegally parked cars. Once the bus finally made it across the bridge, Mr. Rolle took the first available left turn and brought the bus to a halt by the street curb on Saint Paul Street. He then opened the bus doors and pressed the "panic button" to alert the police of the attack. With the bus stopped, the attackers were able to flee by running out of the doors and jumping out of the windows.1 Mr. Todd sustained bruises to his back and various cuts and abrasions.

Mr. Todd subsequently brought a negligence claim against MTA in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. He alleged that MTA breached its duty of care to him by failing to "take[ ] steps to prevent the attack" when it "knew or should have known" of the impending assault and by "fail[ing] to come to [his] assistance or [to] take[ ] steps to assure his safety" after it had learned that an "altercation" had begun. After a period of discovery, MTA filed a motion for summary judgment, in which it argued that Mr. Todd presented "no evidence that [its] bus driver knew that [Mr. Todd] would be attacked or was in danger of being attacked," and, therefore, the driver could not have prevented Mr. Todd's injuries. Without stating its reasons, the Circuit Court granted MTA summary judgment in an order dated March 8, 2002. On April 1, 2002, Mr. Todd noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. This Court, on its own initiative and prior to any proceedings in the Court of Special Appeals, issued a writ of certiorari, Todd v. MTA, 370 Md. 268, 805 A.2d 265 (2002).

Before this Court, Mr. Todd presented the two following questions:

I. Once a common carrier becomes aware that a passenger is being assaulted by a third party, does the carrier have a duty to take steps to protect the passenger from further attack?

II. Viewing the facts and the permissible inferences to be drawn from them in the light most favorable to Mr. Todd, did the court err in granting the Mass Transit Administration's motion for summary judgment?

We hold that both of Mr. Todd's questions should be answered affirmatively and, consequently, reverse the decision of the Circuit Court.

II. Standard of Review

This Court reviews an order granting summary judgment de novo. Beyer v. Morgan State Univ., 369 Md. 335, 359, 800 A.2d 707, 721 (2002); Schmerling v. Injured Workers' Ins. Fund, 368 Md. 434, 443, 795 A.2d 715, 720 (2002); see Fister v. Allstate Life Ins. Co., 366 Md. 201, 210, 783 A.2d 194, 199 (2001). In so doing, we must determine, initially, whether a dispute of material fact exists. Md. Rule 2-501(e) (2002); see Beyer, 369 Md. at 359-60, 800 A.2d at 721; Schmerling, 368 Md. at 443, 795 A.2d at 720; Lippert v. Jung, 366 Md. 221, 227, 783 A.2d 206, 209 (2001). "`A material fact is a fact the resolution of which will somehow affect the outcome of the case.'" Matthews v. Howell, 359 Md. 152, 161, 753 A.2d 69, 73 (2000) (quoting King v. Bankerd, 303 Md. 98, 111, 492 A.2d 608, 614 (1985)). The facts properly before the court as well as any reasonable inferences that may be drawn from them must be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Okwa v. Harper, 360 Md. 161, 178, 757 A.2d 118, 127 (2000). If the record reveals that a material fact is in dispute, summary judgment is not appropriate. See id. If no material facts are disputed, however, we then must determine whether the Circuit Court correctly granted MTA judgment as a matter of law. See Md. Rule 2-501(e); Beyer, 369 Md. at 360, 800 A.2d at 721; Schmerling, 368 Md. at 443, 795 A.2d at 720.

III. Discussion

A properly pleaded claim of negligence includes four elements. The plaintiff must allege "`(1) that the defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury, (2) that the defendant breached that duty, (3) that the plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss, and (4) that the loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant's breach of the duty.'" Muthukumarana v. Montgomery County, 370 Md. 447, 486, 805 A.2d 372, 395 (2002) (quoting Valentine v. On Target, Inc., 353 Md. 544, 549, 727 A.2d 947, 949 (1999) (quoting BG & E v. Lane, 338 Md. 34, 43, 656 A.2d 307, 311 (1995))). Although, generally, whether the plaintiff has presented adequate proof of these elements is a question for the fact finder, the existence of a legal duty ordinarily is a question of law to be decided by the court. Valentine, 353 Md. at 549,727 A.2d at 949. This Court has defined "duty" in a negligence claim as "`an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.'" Muthukumarana, 370 Md. at 486,805 A.2d at 395 (quoting Ashburn v. Anne Arundel County, 306 Md. 617, 627, 510 A.2d 1078, 1083 (1986)).

In this case, Mr. Todd argues that MTA had a duty as a common carrier to prevent foreseeable attacks on its passengers. By failing to take action to prevent his attack, which Mr. Todd urges was foreseeable, MTA breached this duty. Mr. Todd argues further that MTA's failure to take action to protect him after learning of the assault was also a breach of its duty.

MTA contends, however, that it had no duty to protect Mr. Todd from the juveniles because their attack was unforeseeable. In addition, MTA claims that, after learning of the attack, the bus driver's primary duty was to safely operate the bus and not to intervene in the ongoing attack on Mr. Todd. To resolve the parties' dispute, therefore, we must determine whether MTA had a duty to protect Mr. Todd from his assailants both before the attack began and while it was underway.2

A. MTA's Duty of Care Under Tall v. Baltimore Steam Packet Co.3

A common carrier owes its passengers the highest degree of care to provide safe means and methods of transportation for them. See MTA v. Miller, 271 Md. 256, 259, 315 A.2d 772, 774 (1974); St. Michelle v. Catania, 252 Md. 647, 651, 250 A.2d 874, 876 (1969). We succinctly described this heightened duty in MTA v. Miller, 271 Md. at 259, 315 A.2d at 774 (1974):

A common carrier is not an insurer of safety of its passengers, but it is bound to employ the highest degree of care for their safety, consistent with the nature of the undertaking. It owes its passengers a duty to deliver them to their destination as expeditiously as possible, consistent with safety.

See also Ragonese v. Hilferty, 231 Md. 520, 526, 191 A.2d 422, 426 (1963); Retkowsky v. Baltimore Transit Co., 222 Md. 433, 440, 160 A.2d 791, 794-95 (1960); Smith v. Baltimore Transit Co., 214 Md. 560, 568, 136 A.2d 386, 391 (1957); Tall, 90 Md. at 253, 44 A. at 1008; Baltimore & Ohio Railroad v. State, 60 Md. 449, 462 (1883); Baltimore & Ohio Railroad v. Worthington, 21 Md. 275, 283 (1864); Stockton v. Frey, 4 Gill 406, 422-23 (Md.1846).

This high degree of care differs from the standard of care that we require of carriers in situations where a passenger suffered injuries as a result of a fellow passenger's assault. Tall, at 253-54, 44 A. at 1008. In such situations, this Court has held that a carrier has a duty to take affirmative action to prevent a foreseeable attack by one passenger upon another. Pugh v. Washington Railway & Electric Co., 138 Md. 226, ...

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