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Robinson v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

August 5, 2020

Robinson sued WMATA, alleging that its driver’s negligent operation of the bus caused her injury. Robinson boarded the bus and was still standing when the bus approached the next stop sign. When the bus decelerated, she lost her grip on a handrail and fell, injuring her back. Robinson’s basis for her complaint was that the driver violated WMATA’s standard operating procedures and that the “jerk” caused by the deceleration of the bus was of such “extraordinary force” that negligence could be inferred.

At trial, the jury returned a verdict for Robinson. On post-trial motion, the District Court granted judgment as a matter of law in favor of WMATA, finding that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a jury verdict. Robinson filed an appeal and the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. affirmed.

Expert testimony is required to establish a national standard of care where the subject matter is beyond the common knowledge of the average layperson. Robinson argued that the District Court erred in requiring her to establish the standard of care of securing bus passengers through expert testimony because that is within the realm of common knowledge of the average juror. However, the Court of Appeals held that Robinson forfeited that argument at trial when there was no objection to the District Court requiring her to do so or to the Court’s instructions to the jury regarding expert testimony.

Robinson also claimed that the driver violated the “check-your-mirror” operating procedure. According to Robinson’s expert, a driver must check his mirror and make sure all passengers are secure before moving the bus. The expert further testified that “secure” means that the passengers are holding on to something. The Court held that Robinson did not introduce any evidence that the driver’s failure to check the mirror was causally connected to her injury. According to Robinson’s own testimony, she was holding on to a handrail at the time she fell and therefore, she would have been “secure” according to her own expert.  

Robinson’s expert also testified that the driver violated WMATA’s “start gradually, stop smoothly” standard operating procedure. However, the Court concluded that the common law of the District of Columbia requires that in order to prove negligence, a jerk must be of “extraordinary” force, and not merely a failure to stop and start gradually or smoothly.      

Finally, Robinson asserted that she was entitled to recover against WMATA because the “jerk” was of such unusual and extraordinary force that it could not reasonably be said to have occurred in the normal course of operating a bus. The Court, however, determined that Robinson’s testimony that the bus was going “faster than normal buses” did not support such an inference of negligence. Moreover, her testimony that the bus was “jerking” was consistent with a description of the common jerks and jolts encountered on city buses.