Court of Appeals Holds District Not Liable As Matter of Law for Personal Injuries Arising from Trip-and-Fall Incident

Apr 3rd, 2013 | By Douglas C. Melcher | Category: Case Notes

On March 21, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Briscoe v. District of Columbia, No. 11-CV-981, slip op. (D.C. Mar. 21, 2013), a case arising from an incident in which an individual allegedly tripped and fell due to a defective curbstone on a public street. Id. at 1-2. The individual sued the District for negligence in the maintenance of the curbstone to recover damages for personal injuries that she allegedly sustained as a result of the incident. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment for the District. Id. An appeal was then taken by the individual (the “appellant”). Id. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Id.

With respect to the merits, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the District for two independent reasons. First, it agreed with the District’s contention that “the defect in the curbstone was so minor that [the District's] failure to repair it was, as a matter of law, not negligent.” Id. at 4. The Court of Appeals explained that, “‘although the District of Columbia has a duty to maintain its streets in a reasonably safe condition . . . it is not an insurer of safety of those who utilize its streets and sidewalks.'” Id. at 4 (alteration in original; quoting Rajabi v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 650 A.2d 1319, 1322 (D.C. 1994)). It further explained that minor defects in streets are not unusual, and “[t]hus, even if the District has notice of an alleged defect, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law when the alleged defect that caused the plaintiff’s injury was insignificant in nature.” Id. at 5. Applying these principles to the record evidence, which included photographs of the defective curbstone, the Court of Appeals concluded that, as a matter of law, “any defect in the curbstone was de minimis, and . . . appellant therefore cannot prevail on her negligence claim against the District.” Id. at 6.

Second, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District’s contention that the District “was under no obligation to undertake any repair because it had no notice, either actual or constructive, of the defect.” Id. at 4. The Court of Appeals explained that, to establish liability, the appellant was required to show that “‘her injuries were caused by an unsafe or defective condition . . . of which the District had timely notice, either actual or constructive.'” Id. at 7 (alteration in original; quoting Williams v. District of Columbia, 646 A.2d 962, 963 (D.C. 1992)). The appellant essentially conceded that the District did not have actual notice of the defective curbstone, thus leaving only the issue of constructive notice. Id. With respect to that issue, the Court of Appeals concluded that, as a matter of law, the District did not have constructive notice because (1) as shown by photographs of the defective curbstone, “the nature of the defect [was] de minimis“; and (2) as shown by appellant’s own declaration, “the [defective] condition [of the curbstone] was not obvious.” Id. at 8-9.

In addition to considering the merits, the Court of Appeals considered the appellant’s contention that she “was prejudiced by the trial court’s refusal to allow further discovery” which she needed to respond fully to the District’s motion for summary judgment. Id. at 10. The Court of Appeals rejected the appellant’s contention for various reasons, including that the appellant “failed to file an affidavit pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (f) explaining how discovery would enable her effectively to oppose the District’s motion.” Id. at 10-11. It explained that “[w]hen a non-moving party fails to file a Rule 56 (f) affidavit showing how further discovery would provide ‘facts essential to justify . . . [her] opposition,’ and instead merely asserts that she ‘was unable to effectively oppose the summary judgment motion because [s]he was denied discovery,’ this court will not disturb a trial court’s order granting summary judgment.” Id. at 11 (alterations in original; quoting McAllister v. District of Columbia, 653 A.2d 849, 852-53 (D.C. 1995)).

To view the Court of Appeals’ opinion, click here.

Douglas C. Melcher is a civil litigator who has more than a decade of experience in the private practice of law. He has written numerous articles for D.C. Law Report and other publications, and is the author of the book Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia. For further information about Mr. Melcher, click here.