• Maryland Court of Appeals Holds WMATA Entitled to Statutory Immunity for its Maintenance Decisions in Companion Cases
  • November 8, 2012 | Author: Eric M. Leppo
  • Law Firm: Semmes, Bowen & Semmes A Professional Corporation - Baltimore Office
  • Veronica Tinsley v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority No. 1, September Term; Kim Hodge v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority No. 25, September Term (Court of Appeals of Maryland, October 26, 2012)

    In this recently issued opinion by Judge Lynne Battaglia, the Maryland Court of Appeals resolved two separate, but similar, cases against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”), holding that WMATA was entitled to statutory immunity from the Plaintiffs’ tort claims pursuant to the WMATA Compact.

    The WMATA Compact (“the Compact”) is an interstate agreement among Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia to create an interstate entity responsible for overseeing a mass transportation system in the D.C. metropolitan area.

    Plaintiff Veronica Tinsley filed a negligence action in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County as the result of a slip and fall in the Cheverly Metro station. She claimed that she slipped and fell on a wet train platform as a result of a WMATA employee’s mopping/cleaning at the station. She claimed that cleaning the platform prior to 7:00 pm (the end of rush hour) was contrary to the station’s own policy.

    Plaintiff Kim Hodge filed a negligence claim in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County as the result of a slip and fall in the Plaza Metro station. She claimed that she slipped and fell on a wet train platform as a result of water not being cleaned up from the mezzanine level of the station.

    In both cases the trial court denied WMATA’s motions to dismiss and/or for summary judgment based on statutory immunity, and juries awarded damages to the Plaintiffs.

    There is no question that WMATA enjoys sovereign immunity. “WMATA enjoys sovereign immunity as a result of the Compact’s signatories “confer[ring] their respective sovereign immunities upon it.” Morris v. Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, 781 F.2d 218, 219 (D.C. Cir. 1986). This sovereign immunity has been waived, however, under certain circumstances by section 80 of the Compact.

    Essentially, WMATA is liable in contract and tort when its employees or agents are conducting any proprietary function, but not liable for any torts occurring in the performance of a governmental function. Md. Code Trans., § 10-204(80). Therefore, the key question before the Court was whether maintenance decisions made by WMATA and its employees (specifically deciding when to clean the station, and whether to wipe up water or allow it to evaporate) were proprietary functions, or governmental functions.

    The Court noted that while they have not addressed the issue on many occasions, the Fourth Circuit and District of Columbia Courts have dealt with such cases. Those courts employed a test, developed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, under which the court determines whether the activity is “discretionary” or “ministerial,” Smith v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 290 F.3d 201 (4th Cir. 2002). Discretionary acts are seen as being part of the governmental function. Therefore, if the actions undertaken are discretionary, they would be governmental and statutory immunity would apply under section 80 of the Compact.

    The Court then held that it is within WMATA’s discretion as to when and how it will handle maintenance at its stations. This includes when and how clean up will occur, and whether costs will be expended to clean up water tracked into stations, or whether such water will simply be allowed to remain and evaporate. As both the Tinsley and Hodge case involved such discretionary maintenance decisions, the Court found that sovereign immunity did apply and the suits against WMATA were barred.