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Crockett v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Association

United States District Court, Third Circuit

June 14, 2013

DAVID CROCKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION ASSOCIATION, ET AL., Defendants

MEMORANDUM RE: DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTS I, IV, V, VI, VII, AND VIII

MICHAEL M. BAYLSON, U.S.D.J.

I. Introduction

This action arises out of an injury that Plaintiff, David Crockett, suffered while exiting a train owned and operated by the Defendant Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Association (“SEPTA”). In his Amended Complaint, Crockett alleges state law claims against SEPTA for both negligence and negligence per se. Crockett also alleges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that SEPTA and the individual Defendants[1] violated his substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to be protected from state-created dangers. Defendants have moved to dismiss Crockett’s federal claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 28). For the reasons discussed below, Defendants’ motion will be GRANTED. The case will proceed in diversity jurisdiction on Crockett’s state tort claims against SEPTA.

II. Facts & Procedural History

Crockett’s Amended Complaint alleges the following facts, which for the purposes of this motion, the Court must accept as true: SEPTA’s regional rail system uses both low- and high-level platforms. The low-level platforms require the use of stairs to exit the train; the high-level platforms do not. Am. Compl. ¶ 22. To service both platform levels, SEPTA’s rail cars have retractable stair systems that, when not in use, are hidden behind trap doors. Id. ¶ 23. These trap doors have a defect that, on occasion, propels them to unexpectedly and violently spring open, causing harm to those in the way. Id. ¶ 28. SEPTA has known about this problem since the 1980s. Id. ¶ 29. At that time, SEPTA began experimenting with cost-effective solutions to fix the problem. Id. The problem, however, was never fixed.

In 1993, in response to SEPTA’s request for recommendations on how to improve its rail system, a report by the University of Pennsylvania and University of Delaware recommended that SEPTA’s low-level platforms be converted to high-level platforms. Id. ¶¶ 24-25. The main reasons cited for making this conversion were “the great benefits in the speed of boarding/alighting, door control, lower labor requirements and increased safety.” Id. ¶ 26. SEPTA has not yet made this conversion. Id. ¶ 30.

SEPTA’s failure to remove the trap door hazard is what gives rise to Crockett’s claim. On September 1, 2010, as Crockett prepared to exit a SEPTA train in Trenton, New Jersey, a “trap door violently sprang forward, striking Plaintiff on his right leg and slam[ing] down on his left foot, trapping the foot beneath the heavy metal door.” Id. ¶¶ 58, 63. This incident caused Crockett serious injuries, including “numerous foot fractures”; “multiple mid-foot fractures”; lateral dislocation of his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth metatarsals; contusions; embarrassment; and disfigurement. Id. ¶ 75.

In the years prior to Crockett’s injury, other passengers suffered similar harm, including foot fractures and—in some cases—toe amputations. Id. ¶ 31. In 2007, three years prior to Crockett’s injury, there were at least nine reported instances of trap door-related injuries on SEPTA’s railcars. Id. ¶ 32. According to Crockett, the particular railcar, Train Car 282 (“282”), on which he was injured is “extremely dangerous.” Id. ¶¶ 20, 47. The trap doors on 282 sprung open at the wrong time on “at least a dozen occasions, ” and had been “repaired more than 50 times since 1988.” Id. ¶¶ 48, 55. On one occasion, 282’s trap doors caused an injury when an employee tripped over a trap door that had spontaneously sprung open. Id. ¶ 48. Despite this, SEPTA “took no action to fix” the defect. Id. ¶ 55.

Not only did SEPTA fail to fix the trap door problem on 282 and its other railcars, it allegedly “took actions to make its trains less safe.” Id. ¶ 33 (emphasis omitted). Specifically, in order to cut costs, SEPTA decided in the mid-1990s “to forgo daily inspections of its rail cars, including Train Number 282.” Id. Instead of daily inspections, “SEPTA decided to inspect its cars only every 92 days and to make repairs on an as-needed basis.” Id. “By deciding to forgo daily inspections of rail cars and trap doors, ” Crockett alleges that “SEPTA and its managers implemented a policy that resulted in conscious disregard of known defects and the substantial risk of trap door injuries, all for financial gain.” Id. ¶ 34.

In February 2008, SEPTA management concluded “there doesn’t appear to be a significant problem” with its trap door system. Id. ¶ 35. Crockett alleges, however, that the real reason SEPTA managers did not correct the problem was because they “knew that SEPTA’s negligence liability under Pennsylvania law is capped at $250, 000.” Id. ¶ 36. In support of this, Crockett cites an excerpt from an April 2000 Blue Ribbon Panel report that concluded SEPTA’s management places “too great a reliance on the protections of the $250, 000 cap on personal injury recovery against SEPTA provided by Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act.” Id. ¶ 37.

In response to the Blue Ribbon Panel’s report, SEPTA promulgated a “Safety Awareness and Environmental Protection Policy” in 2005. Id. ¶ 40. The policy states that SEPTA management must “strive to probatively reduce identified hazards and risks to the lowest reasonable levels for passengers, employees, and the general public.” Id. ¶ 42. SEPTA also enacted a policy requiring the placement of warning signs to alert passengers to known hazards. Id. ¶ 43. Despite these new policies, SEPTA management “failed to post a single warning about the trap doors, ” and “failed to correct the regional trap door system, ” thereby “causing a known and continued danger to riders such as Plaintiff and to the public.” Id. ¶¶ 43, 45. “As such, SEPTA and its Defendant employees failed to make its trap door system safe for passengers and established a custom, usage, practice and policy under which SEPTA expressly chose to ignore a known and highly correctable safety problem in conscious disregard for public safety.” Id. ¶ 46.

On July 25, 2012, Crockett filed an eight-count Complaint against Defendants. (ECF No. 1). Counts II and III of the Complaint sought relief from SEPTA under state law on the grounds of negligence and negligence per se. Counts I, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII sought relief from all Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.[2] On October 1, 2012, Defendants moved to dismiss Crockett’s 1983 claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 19). The Court heard oral argument on Defendants’ motion on December 19, 2012. During argument, the Court questioned whether the “paying customers of SEPTA’s Regional Rail” could plausibly be a discrete class of foreseeable victims under the state-created danger doctrine. See Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 912-14 (3d Cir. 1997) (discussing requirement that plaintiff be either a known victim or part of a discrete class of foreseeable victims). Without ruling on the matter, the Court gave Plaintiff the option of filing an amended complaint, which Plaintiff elected to do, (ECF No. 27), and which Defendants have again moved to dismiss (ECF No. 28). Rather than characterizing the discrete class of foreseeable victims as SEPTA’s regional rail passengers, Crockett now characterizes the class as only those passengers “on Train Number 282 on September 1, 2010.” Pl’s Reply Br. at 23.

III. LSEGAL TANDARD[3]

“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).[4] While all factual allegations must be accepted as true, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), this requirement does not apply to legal conclusions, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A court must thus distinguish factual allegations from legal conclusions and assess if the factual allegations make out a “plausible claim for relief” for every legal claim asserted. Id. at 679.

In this matter, the Court must determine if Crockett’s federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are plausible. “Section 1983 provides a remedy against ‘any person’ who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights protected by the Constitution.” Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex., 503 U.S. 115, 120 (1992) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983)); see also Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996) (“Section 1983 does not, by its own terms, create substantive rights; it provides only remedies for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws.”). Crockett’s theory of relief under Section 1983 is that Defendants violated his substantive rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

The Due Process Clause does not impose “affirmative obligation[s]” on state actors to “guarantee . . . certain minimal levels of safety and security.” Collins, 503 U.S. at 126 (quoting DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S.189, 195 (1989)). There are, however, two exceptions to this rule. The state has an affirmative duty to protect a person from harm when (1) it has physical custody (i.e., a “special relationship”), and (2) when it affirmatively acts to create a danger. Ye v. United States, 484 F.3d 634, 637 (3d Cir. ...


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