In a decision that means there is no legal recovery for slips and falls at the area’s Metro stations, the Maryland Court of Appeals has held that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is entitled to immunity from tort claims – lawsuits — arising out of its maintenance decisions. The court’s ruling stemmed from slip and falls on wet floors suffered by two women while using the popular Metro subway transportation system.
Veronica Tinsley and Kim Hodge separately filed negligence actions in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County after they were both injured when using the subway. Tinsley said in her lawsuit that she was severely injured after slipping and falling on a floor that was wet because it was recently cleaned. Hodge said she suffered injuries when she slipped and fell on a floor that was wet because other passengers had tracked snow into the station.
Both women achieved five-figure money damage verdicts from their juries. However, the same day the jury ruled for Hodge, the Court of Special Appeals ruled for WMATA in the appeal of Tinsley’s lawsuit. The intermediate appellate court said Tinsley’s lawsuit was barred by sovereign immunity. Because of the ruling by the appellate court, WMATA attorneys were able to get the favorable award for Hodge set aside. When the two cases came before the state’s top court, Maryland’s Court of Appeals agreed with the intermediate appellate court.
The Court of Appeals held, in an opinion that resolved the two separate cases, that WMATA was entitled to immunity for its maintenance decisions under the interstate agreement – the WMATA compact — that created WMATA, because such decisions are governmental, and, in many instances, the government can not be sued unless you have its permission. The concept is called “sovereign immunity.”
Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a longstanding legal doctrine under which it is presumed that the sovereign or state or federal government cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution unless it grants permission. State sovereign immunity has its roots in the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The WMATA compact is an interstate agreement among Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to create an interstate entity responsible for overseeing Metro – the mass transportation system that people use to commute into and out of the District of Columbia. WMATA, the Court of Appeals said, enjoys sovereign immunity as a result of the Compact’s signatories “conferring their respective sovereign immunities upon [it].”
Observing that both lawsuits involved challenges to the manner in which maintenance functions are carried out, but do not deal with violations of a mandatory directive, the court determined that maintenance decisions are a governmental function.
“[W]e hold that WMATA is immune from suit in both cases for the claims asserted against it by the Tinsleys and Ms. Hodge, including the Tinsleys’ Loss of Consortium Claim,” the court said.
Practical Pointer: This is a narrow ruling that only applies to “slip and falls” at Metro stations, many other types of slip and falls are compensable.
These cases present very serious problems due to the classification of an act or omission as “governmental” versus “proprietary” which is the difference between immunity and limited waiver. If proprietary functions involve acts or omissions that generate revenue and are not supplied simply as a service with no profit inuring to the government, then a wide-range of functions are effectively immune. In the case of WMATA, although there is certainly a public service aspect to providing public transportation and in keeping the subways safe, the underlying function of “WMATA as opposed to the actual conduct of its employee must be given greater weight. Had that been done, the result would have been different. The reasoning that maintenance is a governmental function is strained to fit a result and is inconsistent with other reported appellate decisions here and abroad.
Veronica Tinsley v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Kim Hodge v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authoritywere released on October 26.
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