A federal judge has dismissed the District from a federal lawsuit filed by victims of the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, leaving Metro as the sole defendant in the case.
The decision, filed Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, says D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services cannot be held as a responsible party in the lawsuit because the agency is protected by “sovereign immunity” — a legal doctrine that typically prevents lawsuits against government agencies responding to high-pressure emergency situations.
“In the court’s view, the high level strategy and decisions involved in the response to a fire emergency such as this one … is clearly the type of activity that justifies official immunity to assure …’fearless, vigorous, and effective decisionmaking,’ ” Chutkan wrote in her decision.
Chutkan said that Metro’s attorneys also failed to make the case that D.C. Fire did not properly fulfill its contractual duty to Metro while responding to the smoke disaster. Therefore, she said, the District will be dropped from the lawsuit, but Metro will stay on as the sole defendant.
The decision comes nearly seven months after Metro filed a cross-claim in U.S. District Court, seeking to absolve the transit agency of culpability in the smoke disaster that resulted in the death of 61-year-old Carol Glover, of Alexandria, and injured scores of other riders when acrid smoke engulfed a Metro Yellow Line train stuck inside a tunnel outside L’Enfant Plaza.
Those victims have argued in court documents that they were left in the train for about 45 minutes before firefighters arrived to rescue them and escort them off, and that Metro and the District both failed in their duties to the passengers because of miscommunication and a lack of safety preparedness.
Patrick Regan, the attorney representing Glover’s family and some of the other victims in the case, said Thursday that he continues to believe the District should be held legally responsible.
“It’s definitely disappointing that the conduct of the Fire Department and the rescue folks is being allowed to be brushed under the table because of the immunity laws,” Regan said. “It does not affect Metro’s responsibility, but the delay in getting passengers off the train was a joint responsibility of both Metro and D.C.”
Metro and D.C. Fire declined to comment on the decision.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said District officials are pleased with the judge’s decision.
“The Metro Yellow Line incident was a terrible tragedy, and the District’s first responders did their best to assist victims and prevent a horrible situation from getting even worse,” Racine said. “I am glad that the Court agreed with our argument that the District is not properly a party to this case.”
It’s possible that there could be an appeal on the decision — from Metro, from the plaintiffs in the case, or from both. But that won’t be possible until after the lawsuit goes to trial, or until all the cases included in the lawsuit are settled and dismissed.
At least 100 of those riders, along with Glover’s family, have filed lawsuits against Metro and D.C. in U.S. District Court; last January, Metro filed a motion seeking to dismiss those lawsuits and also to lay blame on D.C. Fire for failing to provide a faster response to rescue the trapped riders.
Emergency responders “delayed [their] response, resulting in a substantially longer exposure to smoke by passengers on Train 302, thereby exacerbating the nature and extent of each passenger’s injuries,” Metro alleged in that January cross-claim.
Two weeks later, D.C. came back with its own motion to dismiss Metro’s cross-claim, arguing that the firefighters, and the city, should be protected by legal doctrines that typically prevent lawsuits against government agencies that respond to emergency situations.
“Deciding how to evacuate over 200 people trapped on a train in a smoking underground tunnel required decision making dictated by the circumstances of the immediate moment,” the motion said. “There is an overriding public interest in ensuring that a municipality can respond to mass emergencies unrestrained by the specter of a future lawsuit.”
Chutkan’s decision Thursday agreed with the District.
“[D.C. Fire and Emergency Services’] actions were protected by the District’s sovereign immunity, and the court agrees that the District is immune from suit in this case,” Chutkan wrote.
The legal back-and-forth has rankled relations between the District and Metro. The day after Metro’s cross-claim became public, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser called a news conference to praise the District’s first responders.
“It was my belief then and it is now that our firefighters ran into harm’s way to make sure that they served and saved people — and but for their actions, we don’t even know what the severity of that incident could have been,” she said then.
At a status hearing in U.S. District Court last month, Chutkan said that nearly 50 of the cases filed against Metro and the District have been dismissed as the parties have reached settlements outside of court. More of the cases may still be dismissed.
Metro and the plaintiffs in the case are next due in court in October.