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Maryland District Court Finds Insufficient Evidence That “Bumping” of WMATA Metro Door by Train Operator was Cause of Injury to Passenger’s Hand on Exit

Rheubottom v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
United States District Court for the District of Maryland, No. PJM 09-485

by Jhanelle Graham, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In Rheubottom v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed a negligence claim by Plaintiff, Gregory Rheubottom, against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), for damages arising out of an injury that he allegedly sustained while alighting a WMATA Metro train at the Greenbelt, Maryland station.

On August 26, 2007, Rheubottom boarded the WMATA Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station en route to Greenbelt, Maryland. When the train reached the Greenbelt station, the audible chimes and automated verbal announcement sounded, the doors opened, and Rheubottom began to exit the train. While in the process of exiting, however, the train doors “slammed” shut on his left hand, trapping it in between them; the doors eventually opened and his hand was released. Rheubottom says that only “a couple of seconds” passed between the time when the train doors opened and when they slammed shut on his hand. The train operator was in a separate train car during these events, and stated that she pushed the “door open” button when the train reached the Greenbelt station. After gathering her belongings to leave the train, however, the operator realized that the doors of her own car were still not open. She pressed the “door open” button again; the doors then opened, and the operator was able to leave the car.

The Metro train in question is programmed so that 5.25 seconds automatically elapse between the operator’s first activation of the door closing procedure and final closure of the doors. When the automated door closing procedure is activated, a verbal announcement and audible chimes sound before the doors open. WMATA maintains a data set that tracks most of the activity of the train operator, called the “Train to Wayside Communications” (“TWC”) data. According to Joseph Krempasky, a WMATA engineer and WMATA’s expert in this case, the TWC data produced for the train that Rheubottom was riding on the day of the incident indicated “[t]hat the operator probably bumped . . . the doors on the off platform side to confirm that the doors were closed.” “Bumping” the doors occurs when the train operator presses the “door open” and “door close” buttons almost simultaneously, so that he or she may clear obstructions in the doorways. When the operator “bumps” the doors, they do not fully open; instead, the doors “bounce,” leaving insufficient space for a traveler to exit the train, and the audible chimes and announcements do not sound.

Rheubottom sued WMATA, Alstom Transportation, Inc. (“Alstom”), and IFE North America (“IFE”) in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland for damages arising out of the August 26, 2007, incident. Specifically, Rheubottom contended that WMATA, either by train operator error or as a result of a door malfunction or design defect, caused his injury. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Alstom and IFE and dismissed them from the case, after finding that: (1) Rheubottom was precluded from admitting expert testimony to establish his theory of design defect or malfunction; (2) expert testimony about the mechanical operations of the train and its door opening device was required for Rheubottom to prove his case, and (3) Rheubottom had failed to comply with the procedural requirements for disclosing an expert witness. See FED. R. CIV. P. 26(a)(2). Rheubottom’s remaining claim was that the train operator’s error caused his injury. WMATA moved for summary judgment as to this claim. Rheubottom asserted that there was a genuine dispute of material fact with respect to whether the train operator “mistakenly pressed the “door close” button immediately after pressing the Door Open button.” By contrast,WMATA asserted that there was no evidence of a breach, and that there was no genuine dispute that the doors worked exactly as programmed.

Agreeing with WMATA, the district court stated that, to successfully assert a claim for negligence under Maryland law, Rheubottom must establish the following four elements: (1) WMATA had a duty to protect him from injury; (2) WMATA breached that duty; (3) Rheubottom suffered an injury or loss; and (4) the injury or loss was proximately caused by WMATA’s breach of duty. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth. v. Seymour, 874 A.2d 973, 976-77 (Md. 2005). Here, however, the court found that Rheubottom failed to produce sufficient factual support for his theory that his injury occurred when the train operator inadvertently “bumped” the doors. The record showed only that, a few minutes after Rheubottom exited the train, the operator might have bumped the doors on the opposite side of the train from where Rheubottom exited. Alternatively, the court posited that, according to the uncontroverted testimony of WMATA’s expert, the doors do not fully open when bumped; rather, they bounce, preventing the traveler from exiting the train because there is insufficient space to exit.

According to the court, therefore, Rheubottom’s theory was, contradicted by his own testimony: (1) Rheubottom exited the train onto the platform when the doors opened and then shut on his trailing hand a few seconds after they opened; (2) the “bumping” would have occurred on the opposite side of the train from where Rheubottom exited, and minutes after the train had stopped; and (3) Rheubottom testified that he heard the chimes and announcement before he exited, but these do not sound when the operator bumps the doors. Thus, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Rheubottom, the district court found that there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the operator activated the doors properly. Consequently, the court granted WMATA’S Motion for Summary Judgment.


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