Wmata v. Deschamps

Decision Date03 December 2008
Docket NumberNo. 1707, September Term, 2007.,1707, September Term, 2007.
Citation183 Md. App. 279,961 A.2d 591
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland


This case comes to us from a jury verdict in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, holding appellant/cross-appellee Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") liable to appellee/cross-appellant Ruby Deschamps ("Ms. Deschamps") for negligence stemming from injuries she sustained while riding a WMATA-operated escalator. WMATA made motions for judgment both at the conclusion of Ms. Deschamps' case and at the conclusion of all the evidence, which the court denied. After the conclusion of a three-day trial, the jury awarded Ms. Deschamps $51,781.95 for past medical expenses and $300,000 for non-economic damages. WMATA thereafter filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or alternatively, a new trial, remittitur, or a conformation of the judgment to the statutory cap. The court granted WMATA's motion to reduce the verdict, but denied the motion otherwise.

WMATA timely appealed and presents four issues for our review, which we have reordered as follows:

I. Whether the trial court erred in applying Maryland substantive tort law rather than the law of the District of Columbia.

II. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to give the notice instruction requested by WMATA.

III. Whether the trial court erred in denying WMATA's motions for judgment where Ms. Deschamps failed to produce legally sufficient evidence that WMATA either caused or had notice of the alleged defect which caused her injuries.

IV. Whether the trial court erred in denying WMATA's motions for judgment where Ms. Deschamps failed to present expert testimony regarding escalator operations or maintenance.

Ms. Deschamps cross-appealed and presents one issue for our review, which we have reworded slightly: Whether the trial court erred in reducing the jury verdict pursuant to the Maryland Tort Claims Act.

For the reasons we explain below, we affirm the judgments.


On January 14, 2003, at approximately 8:15 a.m., Ms. Deschamps was traveling to her workplace on Metrorail, owned and operated by WMATA. She boarded Metrorail's Orange Line at the New Carrollton station, and exited the train at the Metro Center station in order to transfer to the Red Line. In order to board a Red Line train, passengers transferring from the Orange Line must ascend one level within the station. Ms. Deschamps boarded an escalator and placed her right hand on the guard rail. Shortly after she began ascending on the escalator, the right sleeve of her winter coat became ensnared between the bottom of the guard rail and the top of the plexiglass paneling below. Ms. Deschamps remained ensnared for several seconds until a fellow passenger helped pull Ms. Deschamps free.

On January 11, 2006, Ms. Deschamps filed a complaint and demand for a jury trial in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. In her complaint, Ms. Deschamps alleged that WMATA owed her a duty to exercise reasonable and ordinary care to inspect and maintain the premises safely; WMATA breached that duty by not properly maintaining the escalator; and a direct result of that breach caused Ms. Deschamps physical injuries and emotional trauma. On March 27, 2006, WMATA filed an answer denying liability.

On May 2, 2007, a jury trial was held. Ms. Deschamps, as plaintiff below, first called Dr. Bruce Ammerman, chief of neurosurgery at Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C., as an expert witness in the field of neurosurgery. Dr. Ammerman testified that he first saw Ms. Deschamps in March 1999 regarding pain she was experiencing from a car accident despite having undergone a cervical fusion operation by another doctor a year prior. He further testified that in November 2000 he performed an operation on Ms. Deschamps to relieve a pinched nerve, and as a result, she began to feel better and was therefore discharged in January 2001.

Dr. Ammerman testified that he did not treat Ms. Deschamps again until January 21, 2003, when she came to his office complaining of pain she began experiencing after the January 14, 2003 incident. He testified that, despite medication and physical therapy, Ms. Deschamps was not getting better. Consequently, he performed a CAT scan in December 2005 which revealed that Ms. Deschamps had a pinched nerve and herniated disk on her right side. On February 28 and March 16, 2006, Dr. Ammerman again operated on Ms. Deschamps, and her symptoms thereafter improved. Dr. Ammerman concluded that, in his expert opinion and to a reasonable degree of certainty, (1) the injuries Ms. Deschamps suffered on January 14, 2003, although mitigated, are permanent in nature, and (2) the medical expenses incurred by Ms. Deschamps, including those related to the two operations he performed, were causally related to the January 14, 2003 incident.

Ms. Deschamps also called her adult daughter, Tracy Harrison, and son, Wendell Francis, to testify. Ms. Harrison testified that, prior to the January 14, 2003 incident, Ms. Deschamps was heavily involved with Ms. Harrison's three children, but after the incident she stopped babysitting and became less involved because she was not physically able to care for her grandchildren. Ms. Harrison also testified that after the incident she began having to do a variety of routine tasks for Ms. Deschamps. Mr. Francis similarly testified that his mother had almost fully recovered before the incident, but her condition "went downhill" after the incident.

Ms. Deschamps testified that on the day of the incident, she placed her hand on the guard rail and soon thereafter her coat sleeve became caught between the guard rail and the plexiglass paneling beneath the guard rail. She testified that she "was jerked backward onto the escalator, and my arm [remained stuck], and the escalator was continuing up." She also testified that the plexiglass section "was pulled out" once she had been freed by a fellow passenger, and she had not noticed that condition when she first boarded the escalator. She testified that, while still at the station, she felt numbness in her neck and a tingling sensation, and reported her condition to Metro employees. Ms. Deschamps testified that she continued to experience significant pain in her neck and shoulder throughout 2004 and 2005, and the pain associated with the treatment she received—most particularly the CAT scan, in which a long needle was used to inject dye into her neck—was similarly traumatic. She testified that, because of her injuries from the incident, she lost a romantic relationship with a man, was not able to be involved with her grandchildren, travel to see family, or be involved in her church. On cross-examination, Ms. Deschamps admitted to prior physical ailments, including those similar to the ones she experienced following the incident, but on redirect she maintained that she was only seeking compensation for injuries created anew or aggravated as a result of the incident.

Counsel for Ms. Deschamps also read from the depositions of Michelle Jones, corporate designee for WMATA, and Cedric Watson, superintendent of the office of escalators for WMATA. Ms. Jones, referring to a report she created the morning of the incident, testified that (1) she observed that the plexiglass was not attached to the guard rail or the frame of the escalator; (2) the condition was unsafe; (3) her inspection of the escalator that morning did not reveal the defective condition; and (4) WMATA had an obligation to ensure the premises are safe for patrons. Mr. Watson testified that, in reviewing the documentation of the incident, the balustrade—or the area of the escalator above the steps on either side of the step bed— was not secure. He also testified that a section of plexiglass on the same escalator was found to not be properly in its trap a week prior to the incident involving Ms. Deschamps. Mr. Watson also testified that it was not unusual for gaps in the plexiglass to appear or for entire panels to pop out, especially in areas with a high volume of usage such as Metro Center station.

After reading portions of Mr. Watson's deposition, Ms. Deschamps rested her case. WMATA thereafter made a motion for judgment, arguing that Ms. Deschamps had (1) failed to prove her case; (2) failed to prove that WMATA had notice of the alleged defect; (3) failed to produce expert testimony regarding WMATA's alleged negligent maintenance of the escalator; and (4) failed to prove how long the allegedly defective condition existed. The court denied WMATA's motion "at th[at] time, in the light most favorable to [Ms. Deschamps]."

WMATA thereafter presented its case. WMATA first called Michelle Johnson-Jones, the station manager responsible for the area containing the escalator at issue at Metro Center station on January 14, 2003. Ms. Johnson-Jones testified that she inspected the escalator at issue that morning prior to opening the station to the public, and found no defects. She also testified that, after Ms. Deschamps approached her to tell her she tore her coat on the escalator, she accompanied Ms. Deschamps back to the escalator, where she saw a plexiglass panel protruding from its frame. Ms. Johnson-Jones testified that customers can damage the escalator in a number of ways, but she had received no reports of any damage between the time she inspected the escalator and the time she was approached by Ms. Deschamps. She also testified that, in her written report of the incident, she noted that Ms. Deschamps complained of "injuries to right wrist, back and neck, in pain," but she...

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