The Catholic University of America

Summary of District of Columbia Laws

Personal Injury

General Tort Principles

Common Law Defenses

Contributory Negligence: Ordinarily establishes a complete bar to recovery. However, defenses of "contributory negligence" and "assumption of the risk" are not available against employees in actions based an employer's breach of the statutory duty to provide reasonably safe working conditions for employees. An exception exists where the employee's actions are with willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for her own safety.

See generally Felton v. Wagner, 518 A.2d 291 (D.C. 1986); Elam v. Ethical Prescription Pharmacy, Inc., 422 A.2d 1288 (D.C. 1980); Martin v. George Hyman Construction Co., 395 A.2d 63 (D.C. 1978).

Assumption of the Risk: This defense applies when a plaintiff enters into a situation voluntarily and the full knowledge of the risk and with full appreciation of its dangers. Note the exception under "contributory negligence" and the general rule that the "assumption of the risk" defense does not apply to employees in the course of their employment.

See generally Kanelos v. Kettler, 132 U.S. App. D.C. 133, 406 F.2d 951 (1968); Scoggins v. Jude, 419 A.2d 999 (D.C. 1980).

Last-Clear-Chance Doctrine

The defendant is liable under this doctrine if:

  1. the plaintiff was put in a position of danger which was caused by the negligence of both the defendant and the plaintiff;

  2. the plaintiff was unaware of the danger or unable to extricate herself from the position of danger;

  3. the defendant knew or should have known of the plaintiff's danger and inability to aid him/herself;

  4. the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care to avoid injuring the plaintiff; and

  5. there is evidence that the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to avoid the dangerous situation.

See generally Robinson v. District of Columbia, 644 A.2d 1084 (D.C. 1994); Felton v. Wagner, 512 A.2d 291 (D.C. 1986); District of Columbia v. Huysman, 650 A.2d 1323 (D.C. 1994).

Respondeat Superior

The District recognizes the doctrine of respondeat superior, which says the employer/master may be liable for employee/servant's torts committed while acting within scope of employment. When doctrine applies, the employer/master/principal is strictly liable for the damages caused by the employee/servant/agent's negligence, regardless of whether the employer is at fault.

Please note: The employee does not lose liability she otherwise had because of respondeat superior; and in the District, the employer has a right of indemnity against wrongdoing employee for the losses sustained and paid by master/employer under respondeat superior. Doctrine applies only to servant/agents, not to independent contractors, over whose physical acts the employer has no control.

Vicarious liability doctrines are challenged by the issue of janitors, law enforcement, safety personnel, counselors, health care employees, priests, etc., sexually assaulting victims who came under their control. Keep in mind, scope of employment requirement must be satisfied.

Respondeat superior may apply also to intentional torts. Example: overly aggressive security guards; scope-of-employment limitation pertains to this. Traditional test for scope has been: Was the employee motivated at least in part by a desire to serve the employer? Another test is foreseeability - whether the employee's conduct should fairly have been foreseen from the nature of the employment and the duties relating to it.

Frolic and Detour. Employee must be actuated, at least in part, to serve the employer. Temporary detour from employer's business does not destroy scope of employment factor e.g. stopping for gas and/or meals.

Premises Liability

The District makes no distinction between a plaintiff's status as invitee or licensee. However, the distinction remains for trespassers. See Holland v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 432 A.2d 597 (D.C. 1981).

The standard of care required of a landowner to one on his premises is reasonable care under all circumstances. Trespassers may only recover for injuries that were willful or wanton or that resulted from maintenance of a hidden engine of destruction. See generally Luck v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 512 F.2d 663 (D.C. Cir. 1975).

Inadequate Security: A landlord is required to furnish reasonable security. The adequacy of security depends on the building and the location.

Elevator and Escalators: In order to recover, it is necessary to establish why the accident occurred. D.C. Code Ann. § 1-323 gives the Council of the District of Columbia the authorization make rules and regulations for the construction, repair, and operations of all elevators within the District, including security measures necessary for public safety.

Slip-and-Fall: The plaintiff must show that the defendant created the condition or had constructive notice.

Housing Code Violations: If housing code violations exist and the tenant has no reasonable means of finding alternative housing, a tenant does not "assume the risk" of injury.

AEDs: Go to our page on Public Access to Automated External Defibrillator Act of 2000.

Res Ipsa Loquitur

The doctrine applies where the cause of the accident is known, it is in the defendant's control, and it was unlikely to do harm unless the person in control was negligent. The doctrine also may be applicable when more than one entity is in control of the premises.

Vicarious Liability

Each theory of liability may have different rules on vicarious liability, but with substantial similarities. Holder v. District of Columbia, 700 A.2d 738 (1997). The District cannot be vicariously liable absent a finding as to the principal actors. Taylor v. District of Columbia, 691 A.2d 121 (1997). Generally, the District follows the Restatement Second (Torts) §§ 416 and 427 regarding workplace vicarious liability. However, it is not extended to employees of independent contractors. Traudt v. Potomac Electric Power Co., 692 A.2d 1326 (1997).

Product Liability

The strict liability standard applies in product liability cases. Possible defenses include "assumption of the risk" and "product misuse," but not "contributory negligence." In some cases, a manufacturer may assert that the plaintiff failed to read a warning, however, there is a rebuttable presumption that a proper warning would have been heeded. If the situation involves defective or unsafe improvements to real property, a manufacturer may be able to assert the 10-year statute of limitations provision. See D.C. Code Ann. § 12-310.

The general statute of limitations for other similar claims (i.e. negligent manufacturing, product liability, breach of warranty, and misrepresentation) is three years. See D.C. Code Ann. § 12-301.

A cause of action exists against all entities that participated in placing the defective product into the stream of commerce. The plaintiff bringing the action only needs to be an intended user or consumer.

Professional Negligence

The standard of care for all actions in negligence is: reasonable care under the circumstances. However, the standard for professionals is: the degree of care reasonably expected of other professionals with similar skills acting under the same or similar circumstances. The District has adopted a national standard for physicians, not a local standard. See generally O'Neil v. Bergan, 452 A.2d 337 (D.C. 1982) (attorneys); Morrison v. MacNamara, 407 A.2d. 555 (D.C. 1979).

Punitive Damages

Though the law disfavors punitive damages, they are appropriately awarded to penalize a defendant for his conduct where his actions are accompanied by fraud, ill will, recklessness, or willful disregard of the plaintiff's rights. Punitive damages are generally not awarded in contract actions but may be available where the alleged breach of contract assumes the character of an intentional tort. In police brutality cases, punitive damages may be available against individual officers but not the District government. In a negligence action, punitive damages may only be awarded if the judgment also awarded actual damages. See generally Franklin Investment Co. v. Smith, 383 A.2d 355 (D.C. 1978); Sere v. Group Hospitalization, Inc., 443 A.2d 33 (D.C. 1982).


links updated 6/9/08 rab
Page checked August 3rd, 2010, FJL.