eNotes: Liability – April 2022- Washington, D.C.
April 01, 2022
SIGNIFICANT CASE SUMMARY
DC CASE SUMMARY
Whiteru v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth.
United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
25 F.4th 1053
Decided: February 11, 2022
Metro Authority is denied summary judgment in wrongful death case where, as a common carrier, it can be liable if it knew, or had reason to know, that a passenger was injured, but failed to aid them.
WMATA operates the transit system in the District of Columbia and its neighbor states of Virginia and Maryland. In this case, WMATA was sued for the wrongful death of Cameroon Witheru, who fell off of a parapet wall in a Metro station, fractured his spine, and later succumbed to his injuries. The Estate’ argued that under the District’s tort law, WMATA was liable since its workers failed to investigate, aid, or otherwise respond to Mr. Witheru’s injuries. Specifically, while visibly intoxicated, he stumbled on the last few steps of the escalator, laid on the steps for several minutes, and then fell off of a 3-foot high parapet wall that he grabbed to regain his footing. From the time he fell until the end of her shift, the WMATA worker on duty was supposed to conduct at least three routine inspections of the platform after the decedent fell. She had no recollection of doing so, despite reporting that she had in the nightly log.
WMATA argued successfully in the District Court that because Mr. Witheru was heavily intoxicated, he was contributorily negligent, and that this operated to completely bar his estate’s recovery for the employee’s negligence. In appealing the decision, Witheru’s estate argued that even if he was contributorily negligent, WMATA was still liable. They argued that under the District’s common law, as a common carrier there is a “special relationship between common carriers and passengers,” and that this “special relationship” meant WMATA had an affirmative duty to “take reasonable action to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm, and to give them first aid after it knows or has reason to know that they are ill or injured, and to care for them until they are cared by others.” In addition to these routine inspections, the employee also assisted the Decedent in entering the station, and briefly spoke with him.
The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the entry of summary judgment in favor of WMATA. The Court agreed with the Plaintiffs, and rejected WMATA’s argument that contributory negligence operated as a complete bar to recovery. Instead, the Court of Appeals found that Plaintiffs raised a genuine dispute such that a reasonable jury could find that the WMATA employee failed to perform the routine inspections, or failed to perform them reasonably. Neither contributory negligence nor contributory negligence per se could completely bar the recovery for the wrongful death because of the special duty owed to passengers. The case was remanded back to the District Court for further proceedings.
Questions about this case can be directed to Matt Ainsley at (202) 945-9506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.