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Ream v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

May 21, 2019

ANNA REAM, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          ORDER ON THE PARTIES' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          THE HONORABLE RICHARD A. JONES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' motions for summary judgment. Dkt. ## 17, 20. For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion and DENIES Defendant's motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         On August 10, 2013, at approximately 8:45 am, a three-vehicle military convoy traveled on State Route 18 (SR 18) toward the Yakima Training Center. Dkt. # 19, ¶ 3. The section of SR 18 relevant to this dispute consists of two lanes in each direction, separated by a median. Dkt. # 18-4 at 6. The convey traveled in the right lane at approximately 55 miles per hour. Dkt. # 19, ¶ 6. A semi-tractor trailer driven by Plaintiff on SR 18 changed lanes and split the lead military vehicle from the two trailing vehicles. Id. As traffic crested a rise near the SE 231st Street exit, the truck commander in the lead military vehicle, Sergeant (Sgt.) Charles Rolando, noticed a pickup truck towing a horse trailer stopped in the right lane. Id., ¶7. A woman stood in the roadway near the pickup truck, waving her arms at the oncoming vehicles. Id.

         Sgt. Rolando instructed Private Second Class (PV2) Licoray Randolph, who was driving the lead vehicle, to stop immediately. Id., ¶ 9. Randolph applied the brakes and brought the lead vehicle to a sudden stop approximately ten feet from the woman and the trailer. Id., ¶ 10. Plaintiff also saw the pickup truck and was able to come to an abrupt stop roughly one and a half car lengths behind the lead military vehicle. Dkt. # 21-1 at 4. The second vehicle in the convoy, which was directly behind Plaintiff, was driven by Specialist Sean Reeves. Dkt. # 19, ¶ 5. Traveling roughly 50 yards behind Plaintiff, Reeves noticed the brake lights come on Plaintiff's truck, but did not realize immediately how quickly she was decelerating. Dkt. # 21-3 at 7. Once he did, Reeves determined that he would be unable to stop his vehicle in time to avoid a collision. Id.; Dkt. # 18-4 at 7. He looked to his left mirror and attempted to change lanes, but could not do so because of the speed of traffic. Id. at 7-8. He then looked to his right, in order to pull onto the shoulder, but realized there was not enough room because of a guardrail. Id. Before he could fully stop, Reeves hit the back of Plaintiff's semi-tractor trailer. Dkt. # 21-3 at 7-8.

         On July 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed this action against the United States (“the government”) for damages relating to the accident under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Dkt. # 1. In April 2018, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now before the Court.[1] Dkt. ## 17, 20.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the moving party will have the burden of proof at trial, it must affirmatively demonstrate that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for the moving party. Soremekun v. Thrifty Payless, Inc., 509 F.3d 978, 984 (9th Cir. 2007). On an issue where the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party can prevail merely by pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 325. If the moving party meets the initial burden, the opposing party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of fact for trial in order to defeat the motion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000).

         However, the court need not, and will not, “scour the record in search of a genuine issue of triable fact.” Keenan v. Allan, 91 F.3d 1275, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); see also White v. McDonnel-Douglas Corp., 904 F.2d 456, 458 (8th Cir. 1990) (the court need not “speculate on which portion of the record the nonmoving party relies, nor is it obliged to wade through and search the entire record for some specific facts that might support the nonmoving party's claim”). The opposing party must present significant and probative evidence to support its claim or defense. Intel Corp. v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 952 F.2d 1551, 1558 (9th Cir. 1991). Uncorroborated allegations and “self-serving testimony” will not create a genuine issue of material fact. Villiarimo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002); T.W. Elec. Serv. v. Pac Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Under the principle of sovereign immunity, the United States cannot be sued for damages without its consent. Cominotto v. United States, 802 F.2d 1127, 1129 (9th Cir. 1986) (citing United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983)). The FTCA waives the government's sovereign immunity for tort claims arising out of negligent conduct of government employees acting within the scope of their employment. Terbush v. United States, 516 F.3d 1125, 1128 (9th Cir. 2008). Therefore, the government can be sued “under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). Plaintiff claims that the government is liable under the FTCA for the negligence of Specialist Sean Reeves in causing the accident. Dkt. # 20.

         Under Washington law, where two cars are traveling in the same direction, the primary duty of avoiding a collision rests with the following driver. Miller v. Cody, 252 P.2d 303, 305 (Wash. 1953). In the absence of an emergency or unusual conditions, the following driver is negligent if he runs into the car ahead. Id. Furthermore, the following driver is not necessarily excused even in the event of an emergency: it is his duty to keep such distance from the car ahead and maintain such observation of that car that an emergency stop may be safely made. Id.

         The government argues that the “emergency doctrine” applies and negates any breach of the duty of care. Dkt. # 17 at 6. The essential element invoking the emergency doctrine is confrontation by a sudden peril requiring an instinctive reaction. Seholm v. Hamilton, 419 P.2d 328, 331 (1966). It applies when a person has been placed in a position of peril and must make an instinctive choice between courses of action after the peril has arisen. See Brown v. Spokane County Fire Prot. Dist. No. 1, 668 P.2d 571, 577 (1983) (citing Sandberg v. Spoelstra, 285 P.2d 564 (Wash. 1955)). “ ‘The doctrine excuses an unfortunate human choice of action that would be subject to criticism as negligent were it not that the party ...


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