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Incarcerated Plaintiff’s Failure to Present Expert Testimony and Demonstrate a Sufficient Special Relationship Barred His Claims for Negligence and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

John Lesesne v. District of Columbia
(November 25, 2015) United States District Court for the District of Columbia

by Matthew J. McCloskey, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2010cv0602-76

In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia reaffirmed the necessity that a plaintiff present expert testimony in cases involving professional negligence and medical causation, and held that the relationship between an incarcerated individual and the District of Columbia (“D.C.”) was not a “special relationship” sufficient to support a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Plaintiff, John Lesesne, attacked his brother, a D.C. police officer, with a knife. In self-defense, Plaintiff’s brother shot him in the abdomen. Plaintiff was then arrested and taken to a hospital, where he underwent surgery. During his recovery, Plaintiff remained handcuffed to his bed at all times, and Plaintiff alleged that D.C. jail personnel refused to acquiesce to physicians’ requests that he participate in physical and occupational therapy. When Plaintiff was discharged, police officers forced him to walk out of the hospital while shackled, and also dropped him, causing a pulmonary embolism. Additionally, after a second stay in the hospital and a return to the D.C. jail, Plaintiff contracted a staph infection due to D.C. jail personnel’s failure to provide him with adequate medical care. Plaintiff alleged that he became disabled as a result of jail personnel.

Plaintiff sued D.C., the D.C. Department of Corrections (“DOC”), and several officers of the DOC, alleging sixteen (16) causes of action related to the injuries he suffered while in custody. Many of Plaintiff’s claims were subsequently dismissed, but the causes of action for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress survived. D.C. subsequently moved for summary judgment. As to Plaintiff’s claim for negligence, D.C. argued that Plaintiff was required to present expert testimony to establish his claim, and that his failure to proffer expert testimony was fatal to his cause of action. With regard to Plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, D.C. contended that Plaintiff had not demonstrated that there was a special relationship between him and D.C. or that the zone of danger rule was applicable.

Judge Christopher R. Cooper agreed. Addressing first Plaintiff’s cause of action for negligence, the Court noted that Plaintiff alleged that D.C.’s actions in failing to provide adequate medical services to him while he was in its custody proximately caused him to suffer a physical injury and a disability. Under D.C. law, “where the standard of care at issue arises from a particular occupational setting, and depends on knowledge of typical practices by professionals of that occupation,” expert testimony is generally required to establish the standard of care for that profession. Moreover, “where the causation alleged . . . concerns the relationship between a deviation from a standard of care and a plaintiff’s medical injury,” expert testimony is also required to explain the causal connection itself. In this case, Plaintiff thus needed an expert to testify as to the standard of care for correctional officials monitoring an incarcerated individual receiving medical treatment, and an expert to testify as to whether his injuries were caused by the breach of that standard of care. Because Plaintiff had failed to proffer any expert testimony, he could not establish his claim for negligence, and the Court granted D.C.’s motion for summary judgment as to that cause of action.

Turning then to Plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, the Court noted that Plaintiff alleged he suffered emotional distress as a result of DOC officials refusing to permit him to receive the physical and occupational therapy recommended by his physicians. Plaintiff also claimed that he incurred additional medical bills and suffered a disability as a result of not receiving the recommended therapy. The Court stated that, to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must establish that they were in a “zone of danger” or that there was a special relationship between the parties. As to whether there was a zone of danger, Plaintiff was required to show that he was in danger of physical injury and feared for his safety. Plaintiff, however, admitted that he was “too [medicated] to care” about what the DOC officials did while he was in the hospital. Consequently, he could not establish his claim under the zone of danger test.

Regarding whether there was a sufficient special relationship, Plaintiff was required to show that the relationship between him and D.C. involved his “‘emotional well-being . . . at [its] core’” or “‘necessarily implicate[d]’ such well-being.” The Court did not believe such a relationship existed here. It held that the purpose of the relationship between D.C. and Plaintiff was not to protect Plaintiff’s emotional health, but rather was in furtherance of D.C.’s duty to neutralize a threat to the community. Because D.C. did not undertake that duty to protect Plaintiff’s emotional health, it was not a special relationship sufficient to support Plaintiff’s claim. In any event, the Court noted that a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, like a cause of action for negligence, required the presentation of expert testimony. As a result, Plaintiff could not establish his claim, and the Court granted D.C.’s motion for summary judgment.


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