WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge set the stage for a jury trial on the death of a 35-year-old lawyer whose body it took four days to discover after he tripped on the escalator at a D.C. metro station.
Relying on testimony from station workers and surveillance footage, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson notes that the manner of Okiemute Whiteru’s death is undisputed.
Shortly after midnight on Oct. 19, 2013, Whiteru spoke with the station manager at the Judiciary Square station and began making his way to the platform for Shady Grove-bound trains. The escalator was in stationary mode, however, and Whiteru stumbled while trying to navigate the last few steps.
He lay on the ground for several minutes before regaining his footing, and then spent the next 45 seconds leaning against the concrete parapet that ran along the edge of the platform.
When Whiteru tried to sit on the 3-foot high ledge, however, the lawyer fell backward after just 10 seconds, landing in the 53-inch gap separating the wall and the platform.
It is undisputed that Whiteru broke one of the vertebra in his neck but could have survived without traumatic brain injury if someone had found him right away.
Instead Whiteru’s body was found at approximately 2:50 p.m. on Oct. 23 by an anonymous Metro rider.
Rhonda Brown, the station manager on duty that afternoon, was the same one who had helped Whiteru through the turnstile on the day of his fall. Looking over the parapet, she was able to see Whiteru’s body without need of a flashlight or any other equipment.
Whiteru’s parents sued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for negligence, and Judge Jackson cleared the way last week for the Whiterus to take their case to trial.
Though the WMATA moved for summary judgment, Jackson’s July 7 ruling says its failure to reasonably investigate the train platform amounts to a waiver of sovereign immunity.
“On the basis of Brown’s testimony, a reasonable jury could conclude that she failed to fulfill the requirement that she make three in-person inspections of the platform after Whiteru fell behind the parapet, and this is especially so because Brown has testified that she has no independent memory of making those particular inspections (even though she filled out an employee log indicating that she completed them), and because Brown has admitted that she has used the closed-circuit monitors for platform inspections in the past,” the ruling states.
It would also be reasonable for the jury to find that, “even if Brown walked the platform from end to end on October 19, 2013, Brown failed to perform a reasonable inspection when she did not look over the parapet,” Jackson added.
“The record amply demonstrates that anyone who looked over the parapet would have seen Whiteru,” the ruling continues, “and that if help had been summoned based on that observation, Whiteru would have survived. Consequently, Plaintiffs have proffered sufficient record evidence regarding whether or not Brown fulfilled her inspection duties on the date in question to thwart Defendant’s summary judgment argument.”
WMATA procedures do allow station managers some leeway to determine where a disoriented or disabled passenger might sleep, but Jackson said “the policy does not leave managers with ‘unbridled discretion’ with respect to platform inspections such that WMATA can claim sovereign immunity if the prescribed inspection procedures are not followed and someone is injured.”
“WMATA’s standard procedures require station managers to make visual inspections and pay attention to such areas, and WMATA is not immune from suit when its employees are alleged to have breached this duty,” the ruling continues (emphasis in original). “Put another way, it is clear to this court that each manager’s decision regarding which areas to inspect in furtherance of the mandatory inspection requirement is not a ‘judgment at the policy and planning level’ that ‘should be immune from second-guessing by a jury.’”
Agreeing with the Whiterus, the ruling says nothing about the underlying accident implicated the agency’s governmental function.
“Instead, WMATA’s alleged failure to conduct a reasonable investigation of the train platform under the circumstances presented in this case fits within the agency’s proprietary functions,” Jackson wrote. “Thus, Section 80 has waived WMATA’s sovereign immunity in this regard, and WMATA is not immune from this lawsuit.”
A representative for the WMATA has not returned a request for comment.