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D.C. Court of Appeals Reversed Entry of Judgment In Favor Of Defendants, Holding That Trial Court Should Have Examined All Evidence Presented At Trial

Sullivan v. Abovenet Comm’ns, Inc.
No. 14-CD-431 (D.C. March 26, 2015)

by Wayne C. Heavener, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

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In Sullivan v. AboveNet Communications, the District of Columbia’s court of last resort reversed a trial court’s entry of judgment in favor of the defendants in a negligence case. The trial court had reserved ruling on the defendants’ motion for judgment when presented at the close of the plaintiff’s case, and ultimately granted the motion after the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The trial court premised its ruling only on evidence adduced during the plaintiff’s case in chief. The Court of Appeals reversed, and held that the trial court should have looked to all evidence presented during the trial. The Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence on which a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

Stephen Sullivan (“Plaintiff”) tripped on the edge of a manhole cover while traversing a crosswalk at the intersection of F Street, North Capitol Street, and Massachusetts Avenue, and injured his shoulder. Plaintiff subsequently filed a negligence action against the District of Columbia (the “District”) and AboveNet Communications (“AboveNet”). Plaintiff alleged that the District had contracted with AboveNet to install the manhole. Plaintiff alleged that AboveNet was negligent for installing the manhole with a depression around it, which allegedly caused Plaintiff’s fall, and that the District was negligent for failing to monitor and inspect AboveNet’s work. At trial, Plaintiff introduced into evidence permits issued by the District to AboveNet for the purpose of installing conduits and a manhole at on F Street. Plaintiff did not call any AboveNet employees to testify, and rested upon the permits to prove that AboveNet actually performed work on the manhole. Plaintiff also introduced the testimony of his co-worker, Jennie Lam-Nagata, who took pictures of the uneven manhole two (2) weeks prior to Plaintiff’s accident. Plaintiff also presented the expert testimony of Richard Balgowan, who testified that Plaintiff fell because AboveNet failed to properly “backfill” the manhole. According to Balgowan, improper backfilling caused a depression to form around the manhole, which, in turn, caused Plaintiff to trip and fall. Plaintiff appealed.

At the end of Plaintiff’s case, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law. The defendants argued that Plaintiff failed to adduce evidence that AboveNet actually completed work on the manhole, and that Lam-Nagata’s testimony was insufficient to establish constructive notice of the defect. The defendants also argued that Balgowan failed to identify any standard of care upon which a finding of negligence could be based. The Court reserved ruling on the defendants’ motion, and proceeded to the defendants’ case in chief. During the defendants’ case, the District introduced evidence that the manhole cover bore AboveNet’s name, and employees of the District confirmed that AboveNet installed the manhole. At the close of all evidence, the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. The trial court then granted the defendants’ pending motion for judgment in favor of AboveNet and the District, and against Plaintiff. In reaching its decision, the trial court held that it could only consider evidence introduced during Plaintiff’s case in chief, and therefore could not consider the fact that the District confirmed that AboveNet worked on the manhole.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the trial court’s entry of judgment, and held that Plaintiff established all the necessary elements of negligence. The Court held that the trial court had the authority to reserve on the defendants’ motion for judgment until after the jury returned the verdict. The Court determined, however, the trial court should have considered the evidence introduced in the defendants’ case in addition to the evidence presented in the Plaintiff’s case. Looking at all the evidence in the case, the Court held that a jury could have reasonably concluded that AboveNet installed the manhole. The Court also held that Lam-Nagata’s testimony was sufficient to establish constructive notice of the defect, and that Balgowan testimony was sufficient to establish a standard of care. The Court, therefore, reversed the trial court’s entry of judgment, and remanded the case for the trial court to reinstated the jury verdict and award for Plaintiff.