Washington v. District of Columbia, 13095.

Docket NºNo. 13095.
Citation429 A.2d 1362
Case DateApril 06, 1981
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

Michael T. O'Bryant, Washington, D. C., for appellant.

Leo N. Gorman, Asst. Corp. Counsel, Washington, D. C., with whom Louis P. Robbins, Acting Corp. Counsel, Washington, D. C., at the time of en banc argument, and Richard W. Barton, Asst. Corp. Counsel, Washington, D. C., at the time of en banc argument, were on brief, for appellee.

Before NEWMAN, Chief Judge, KELLY, KERN, NEBEKER, HARRIS, MACK, FERREN, and PRYOR, Associate Judges, and GALLAGHER, Associate Judge, Retired.*

FERREN, Associate Judge:

This case presents two questions: (1) whether a letter from counsel advising the District of Columbia that appellant had suffered injuries from a fall in a public housing unit satisfied the requirements of D.C. Code 1973, § 12-309, that a claimant, within six months of the injury, must give written notice of the "cause, and circumstances" (as well as the place and approximate time)1; and, if so, (2) whether the trial court erred in granting the District's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground there was insufficient evidence that the alleged negligence was the prosimate cause of appellant's injury. As to the first, we hold that the "cause" element will be satisfied if the notice recites facts from which the District reasonably could anticipate a claim against it might arise, and that the "circumstances" element will be met if the notice provides enough information to enable the District to conduct a prompt, properly-focused investigation. Applying these criteria, we conclude that the letter from appellant's counsel satisfied § 12-309. As to the second issue, we conclude that the trial court erred in granting judgment n. o. v. Accordingly, we reverse and order the trial court to reinstate the jury verdict in appellant's favor.


At about 2 a. m. on March 23, 1975, appellant Delores Washington suffered ankle injuries when she fell while attempting to leave the residence of a friend, Marion Fisher.2 The accident occurred when appellant — who had walked up a stairway leading to the front door of Fisher's house — stepped back as the door opened, and twisted her ankle.

Two weeks later, on April 4, 1975, appellant's attorney sent the following letter to the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA), with a carbon copy to the Mayor:

Re: Our Client: Delores Washington Date of Accident: 3/22/75 Location: 1923 Stanton Terrace SE

Dear Sirs:

Reference is made to the above-captioned matter. This office represents Ms. Delores Washington in connection with the fall sustained in the building owned by you at the above-stated address.

Ms. Washington sustained a broken leg and was treated at Cafritz and George Washington Hospitals. As soon as we have documentation of all losses sustained by her, we will forward same to you. If you have any questions concerning this matter, please contact me at your earliest convenience.

The Mayor's office has established procedures for identifying "claims letters" and channeling them to the proper department. See DeKine v. District of Columbia, D.C. App., 422 A.2d 981 (1980). Presumably as a result of such forwarding, District investigator Robert L. Schumacher received the letter from appellant's attorney. Schumacher discussed the accident with appellant's counsel on February 23, 1976, and on several other occasions. On June 15 or 16, 1976, Schumacher visited 1923 Stanton Terrace and examined the scene of the accident.

In the meantime, on June 4, 1976, appellant filed a complaint for damages against NCHA and the District. She alleged that they negligently had failed to maintain the premises in a safe condition by neglecting to install a proper handrail and to maintain proper lighting. The District answered by denying all allegations of negligence and asserting that appellant had failed to comply with the requirements of § 12-309.3

A jury awarded damages to appellant totaling $24,380. The District moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, contending primarily that (1) the notice letter "was completely void with respect to the circumstances of the accident" and thus did not satisfy § 12-309, and (2) the evidence failed to establish that the lack of a handrail was a proximate cause of the accident. The trial court concluded "that the mandatory notice provisions of Section 12-309 were adequately complied with."4 The court, however, agreed with the District on the merits, granting judgment n. o. v. based on its finding of insufficient "evidence to show that the lack of a banister was the proximate cause of the accident."5 On December 23, 1977, the court denied appellant's motion for reconsideration. Although the trial court ruled that the evidence was sufficient for a finding that the District was negligent in failing to maintain a rail, the court also ruled, once again, that the evidence was insufficient to show such negligence was the proximate cause of appellant's injuries.

On appeal, a divided panel of this court concluded that appellant had failed to satisfy the requirements of § 12-309 and, on that basis, affirmed the entry of judgment in favor of the District.6


Appellant contends, first, that her April 4, 1975 letter satisfied the notice requirements of § 12-309. The District concedes that this letter provided the approximate time of the injury,7 the place of injury (1923 Stanton Terrace, S.E. — a single family house owned by the District and managed by NCHA),8 and the fact that appellant's injuries resulted from a fall. The District asserts, however, that the letter contained insufficient details of the "cause, and circumstances" of the injury.

A. Section 12-309 "was intended by Congress to ensure that `District officials [would be given] reasonable notice of [an] accident so that the facts may be ascertained and, if possible, the claim adjusted.' " Shehyn v. District of Columbia, D.C. App., 392 A.2d 1008, 1013 (1978) (quoting H.R.Rep.No.2010, 72d Cong., 2d Sess. 2 (1933)). Accord, Braxton v. National Capital Housing Authority, D.C.App., 396 A.2d 215, 217 (1978) (per curiam); Pitts v. District of Columbia, D.C.App., 391 A.2d 803, 809 (1978); Miller v. Spencer, D.C.App., 330 A.2d 250, 251 (1974); Hurd v. District of Columbia, D.C.Mun.App., 106 A.2d 702, 704 (1954); Stone v. District of Columbia, 99 U.S.App.D.C. 32, 33, 237 F.2d 28, 29 (en banc), cert. denied, 352 U.S. 934, 77 S.Ct. 221, 1 L.Ed.2d 160 (1956). Although the statute "is to be strictly construed" and "compliance with [its] notice requirement is mandatory," Pitts, supra at 807 (citations omitted), "`with respect to the details of the statement [giving notice], precise exactness is not absolutely essential.'" Id. (quoting Hurd, supra at 705, and adding emphasis). Accord, Breen v. District of Columbia, D.C.App., 400 A.2d 1058, 1062 (1979).9 The degree of specificity required under the statute, moreover, is the same whether the claimant provides written notice to the District or relies instead on an official police report. See, e. g., Eskridge v. Jackson, D.C.App., 401 A.2d 986, 989 (1979) (per curiam); Miller, supra at 252 n. 7.

We have recognized that "cause" and "circumstances" are separate elements of the § 12-309 requirement. See Pitts, supra at 809. Accord, Stone, supra, 99 U.S. App.D.C. at 45-46, 237 F.2d 41-42 (Prettyman, J., dissenting); Boone v. District of Columbia, 294 F.Supp. 1156, 1157 (D.D.C. 1968).10 More specifically, in Pitts, supra, which concerned a claim for wrongful death at a public housing project, we said with respect to the "cause" element that notice would be sufficient "if it recites facts from which it could be reasonably anticipated that a claim against the District might arise." Id. at 809.11 This means that the written notice or police report must disclose both the factual cause of the injury and a reasonable basis for anticipating legal action as a consequence. Such notice would suffice, therefore, if it either characterized the injury and asserted the right to recovery, or — without asserting a claim — described the injuring event with sufficient detail to reveal, in itself, a basis for the District's potential liability.12

As to the "circumstances" element under § 12-309, we stated in Pitts, supra, that the adequacy of the circumstances described must be determined "with reference to the purpose of the statutory notice requirement which is to give the District timely information concerning a claim against it, so it may adequately prepare its defense.'" Id. at 809 (quoting Stone, supra, 99 U.S. App.D.C. at 33, 237 F.2d at 29).13 Thus, the circumstances must be detailed enough for the District to conduct a prompt, properly focused investigation of the claim.14

B. We turn to the facts of this case.15 As to the "cause" requirement, the April 4 letter revealed to the District that appellant had suffered a "fall"; that this had occurred "in the building owned by [the District] at the above-stated address," a single-family dwelling; and that she had "sustained a broken leg and was treated at Cafritz and George Washington Hospitals."

The letter also included a reference to the fact that appellant had retained counsel to write to the District to pursue "losses sustained by her" as a result. Taken together, this information alerted the Mayor and his subordinates to a potential lawsuit based on the District's legal responsibility for the premises as owner-manager. Thus, an asserted causal link between the District and appellant's injury was clear from the letter.16 Especially given the reference to "our client" in the lawyer's April 4 letter,17 there was no alternative hypothesis for a legal cause of the injury (e. g., a slip on a child's mislaid toy) that was sufficiently strong for the District reasonably to have ignored it as ambiguous or far-fetched.18

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