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Sampson v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 17, 2017




         Presently pending and ready for resolution in this tort action is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant United States of America (the “United States”). (ECF No. 41). The issues have been fully briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, the motion for summary judgment will be granted.

         I. Background[1]

         On March 4, 2012, Plaintiff Sharon Sampson (“Plaintiff”) was walking with John Ford from a Popeye's restaurant to the New Carrollton Metro station when she tripped and fell on the sidewalk at the corner of Harkins Road and Ellin Road in Lanham, Maryland. (ECF No. 41-2, at 9-10). The United States owns the property at the corner where Plaintiff fell, and the Internal Revenue Service is the tenant. (ECF No. 41-4, at 6). Plaintiff claims that she tripped over a lip between sidewalk panels adjacent to the cover of a utility box. (ECF No. 41-2, at 9).

         On February 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed an administrative claim for damages with the United States General Services Administration, alleging that the fall caused various bodily injuries and other damages. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 9-10). The General Services Administration has neither accepted nor rejected the claim. (Id. ¶ 4). On January 28, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant suit for negligence against the United States and Verizon Enterprise Solutions, LLC (“Verizon”), which Plaintiff believed owned and maintained the utility box. (ECF No. 1). Verizon submitted affidavit evidence that it did not own or operate the utility box in question, and its motion for summary judgment was granted on August 20, 2015. (ECF Nos. 8; 21; 22). Plaintiff and the United States proceeded to discovery, and the United States filed the instant motion for summary judgment on September 26, 2016. (ECF No. 41). Plaintiff responded on October 13, and the United States replied on October 31. (ECF Nos. 42; 43).

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion for summary judgment will be granted only if there exists no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. In undertaking this inquiry, a court must view the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); see also EEOC v. Navy Fed. Credit Union, 424 F.3d 397, 405 (4th Cir. 2005), but a “party cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences, ” Shin v. Shalala, 166 F.Supp.2d 373, 375 (D.Md. 2001) (citation omitted).

         To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party generally bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. No genuine dispute of material fact exists, however, if the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case as to which she would have the burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. Therefore, on those issues on which the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, it is her responsibility to confront the summary judgment motion with an “affidavit or other evidentiary showing” demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Ross v. Early, 899 F.Supp.2d 415, 420 (D.Md. 2012), aff'd, 746 F.3d 546 (4th Cir. 2014).

         III. Analysis

         A. Applicable Law

         Plaintiff brings her claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2671, et seq. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 1). “The [FTCA] requires the government's liability to be determined ‘in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.'” United States v. St. Louis Univ., 336 F.3d 294, 300 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1)). Because the United States' alleged failure to maintain the sidewalk occurred in Maryland, Maryland law applies.

         To establish a prima facie case for negligence under Maryland law, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the defendant owed a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the plaintiff suffered an injury; and (4) the defendant's breach was the proximate cause of the injury. See Rosenblatt v. Exxon Co., U.S.A., 335 Md. 58, 76 (1994). The United States argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because (1) Plaintiff fell on a portion of the sidewalk that was a public way for which the municipality is responsible; (2) if Plaintiff was on a portion of the sidewalk for which the United States is responsible, she was a trespasser or a bare licensee to whom only a minimal duty was owed; or (3) the defect in the sidewalk over which Plaintiff tripped was open and obvious to her. (ECF No. 41-1, at 8-11).

         B. Duty to Maintain Public Ways

         The United States first argues that it had no duty to protect Plaintiff because she fell on a public way maintained by Prince George's County, Maryland (the “County”). (ECF No. 41-1, at 9). Municipalities have a duty to keep public ways, both streets and sidewalks, in a safe condition for public travel. Bagheri v. Montgomery Cty., Md., 180 Md.App. 93, 98-99 (2008) (citing Mayor of Balt. v. Eagers, 167 Md. 128 (1934)). When a property abuts a public sidewalk that the owner has not constructed, the duty to maintain it rests with the municipality and not the abutting owner. Leonard v. Lee, 191 Md. 426, 430-31 (1948); see also Weisner v. Mayor of Rockville, 245 ...

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