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Sovereign immunity does not bar a failure-to-warn suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

District of Columbia

,

United States

Background

In Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth. v. Nash-Flegler, No. 20-CV-455 (D.C. 2022), the plaintiff fell on a platform as he was deboarding a Metro train. He sued the Washington Metro Transit Authority (“WMATA”) alleging that he was injured due to its negligent maintenance of the platform and its failure to properly warn passengers of the platform's icy and slippery condition. The WMATA had placed one yellow warning cone on the long metro platform near the escalator. The plaintiff did not see the cone prior to his fall. WMATA moved for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that sovereign immunity insulated it from suit. The trial court denied summary judgment on the failure-to-warn claim, concluding that sovereign immunity did not bar that claim from proceeding to trial (at 1-2).

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's denial of summary judgment on the failure-to-warn claim.

Limits of sovereign immunity

The Court explained that WMATA's sovereign immunity extends to acts occurring in the performance of a governmental function, but does not protect it from suits for torts committed in the conduct of any proprietary function. The statutory test is the two-part test that requires that the court first ask whether the lawsuit targets a quintessentially governmental activity. If it does, immunity applies (at 12-13).

If the first part of the test does not apply, under the second part of the test a court asks whether the organization was engaged in a discretionary function that involved balancing various economic, political, and social considerations. Discretionary activity is not confined to the policy or planning level, and can include day-to-day operational activities, provided the decisions at issue involved an exercise of 'political, social, or economic judgment (at 13-14).

The decision in question did not engage sovereign immunity

The Court focused on the second part of the test and noted that the decision to place a single warning cone on the Metro platform, as opposed to many cones, or the failure to broadcast a warning message to deboarding passengers, was not a decision that by its nature was so fraught with policy considerations as to bring it within sovereign immunity's protections. Therefore, the Court upheld the trial court’s ruling that sovereign immunity did not bar that claim from proceeding to trial (at 15).

May 30, 2022
Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth. v. Nash-Flegler, No. 20-CV-455 (D.C. 2022)