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Williams v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

August 2, 2018

MAURICE A. WILLIAMS, et al, Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al, Defendants. JULIA R. PEARCE Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE J. HAZEL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs[1] have sued Defendant United States of America[2] alleging that the United States was negligent in failing to maintain the painted white lane line (or “fog line”) on the right-hand side of a stretch of the Baltimore-Washington (“BW”) Parkway, and that the negligence caused an accident that occurred on February 1, 2015, in which Rick G. Warrick was killed and his fiancée, Julia R. Pearce, was injured. On October 16, 2017, the Government filed the now- pending Motion to Dismiss or, Alternatively, for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 18.[3] The Court held a hearing regarding the Motion on May 17, 2018. ECF No. 26. For the following reasons, the Government's Motion is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND[4]

         Plaintiffs allege that on February 1, 2015, shortly after 9:00 PM, Julia Pearce was driving her car northbound on the BW Parkway with Rick Warrick riding in the front seat and his two minor children in the back seat. Id. ¶¶ 15-16. Her car got a flat tire, so Pearce pulled over to the right-hand shoulder of the road, parked the car, got out, and held a flashlight while Warrick attempted to fix the tire. Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiffs allege that in the “several hundred yards” leading up to where Pearce parked her car, the “curb lane and shoulder were badly deteriorated, rendering the solid white paint line . . . almost entirely invisible.” Id. ¶ 19. While they were outside the car, Warrick and Pearce were struck from behind by a car driven by Earl Teeter, who drove away from the scene. Id. ¶¶ 20, 24. Teeter was later found guilty of Unsafe Operation and Failure to Immediately Stop Vehicle at Scene of Accident Involving Death. Id. ¶ 25. Teeter testified at his criminal trial and attributed the crash to the fact that the white road lines disappeared and he was unable to see where the road ended and the shoulder began. Id. ¶ 26. The road had rumble strips on the shoulder, which he attempted to use to stay on the road, but without the lines he did not realize he was far enough over the shoulder to hit Pearce and Warrick. Id. In response to Teeter's argument that the lack of lane lines caused the crash, Teeter's trial judge, Judge DiGirolamo, reasoned that:

The fact that there were no lines on the road in my opinion means that Mr. Teeter should have had a more heightened sense of duty of care. You are driving down the road, if there is no lane markings, you have to be extra careful of what is happening around you…[I]t is undisputed that Mr. Warrick and Ms. Pearce were there to be seen. And the driver has a duty to see what is there to be seen.

ECF No. 18-1 at 8.[5]

         On April 24, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, against the United States of America and John Doe individuals and entities. ECF No. 1.[6]Their Complaint alleges that the Government failed to properly maintain a portion of the BW Parkway running between Maryland Routes 197 and 198, that the Government's negligence caused the death of Rick Warrick and injury to Julia Pearce, and asserts claims of Wrongful Death, id. at 7 (Count I), and pain and suffering pursuant to the Maryland Survival Act, Md. Code Ann. Cts. and Jud. Proc. § 6-401, id. at 8 (Count II).

         On October 16, 2017, the Government filed the now-pending Motion to Dismiss or, Alternatively, for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 18. The Government argues that the Court should dismiss the case or grant judgment in its favor because the United States's decision regarding how to maintain the BW Parkway falls under the “discretionary function exception” of the FTCA and they are therefore immune from suit; and, even if the Government is not immune from suit, the negligence-based claims still fail because the United States did not have a duty to protect the public from criminal acts of a third party and, even if they did have a duty, the lack of white lines was not a proximate cause of the accident. ECF No. 18. The Court held a hearing regarding the Motion on May 17, 2018.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (“a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do.”)).

         The purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) “is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). When deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court “must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint, ” and must “draw all reasonable inferences [from those facts] in favor of the plaintiff.” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 440 (4th Cir. 2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court need not, however, accept unsupported legal allegations, see Revene v. Charles County Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989), legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events. United Black Firefighters of Norfolk v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979).

         Defendant's Motion is styled as a Motion to Dismiss or, Alternatively, for Summary Judgment. If the Court considers materials outside the pleadings, as the Court does here, the Court must treat a motion to dismiss as one for summary judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). When the Court treats a motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment, “[a]ll parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.” Id. When the moving party styles its motion as a “Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment, ” as is the case here, and attaches additional materials to its motion, the nonmoving party is, of course, aware that materials outside the pleadings are before the Court, and the Court can treat the motion as one for summary judgment. See Laughlin v. Metropolitan Wash. Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 260-61 (4th Cir. 1998). Further, the Court is not prohibited from granting a motion for summary judgment before the commencement of discovery. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (stating that the court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” without distinguishing pre-or post-discovery).

         Summary judgment is appropriate if “materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), show that there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of demonstrating that no genuine dispute exists as to material facts. Pulliam Inv. Co. v. Cameo Props., 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir. 1987). If the moving party demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 183 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute of material fact is only “genuine” if sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists for the trier of fact to return a verdict for that party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. However, the nonmoving party “cannot create a genuine issue of material fact through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1986). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

         “Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies from suit.” F.D.I.C. v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). The FTCA confers jurisdiction on the district courts to hear claims “for . . . personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). The FTCA thus serves as a waiver of the Government's sovereign immunity. See Welch v. United States, 409 F.3d 646, 651 (4th Cir. 2005). A motion to dismiss based on sovereign immunity is a challenge to the Court's subject matter jurisdiction. “[W]hen a defendant challenges subject matter jurisdiction via a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, the district court may regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” In re KBR, Inc., Burn Pit Lit., 744 F.3d 326, 333 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Velasco v. Gov't of Indon., 370 F.3d 392, 398 (4th Cir. 2004)); see also Williams v. United States, 50 F.3d 299, 304 (4th Cir.1995) (noting that “the court may consider the evidence beyond the scope of the pleadings to ...


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