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McLaughlin v. City of Martinsburg

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 1, 2017

Connor McLaughlin, administrator of the Estate of Peter James McLaughlin, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
City of Martinsburg, Defendant Below, Respondent

         (Berkeley County 14-C-814)


         Petitioner Connor McLaughlin, administrator of the Estate of Peter James McLaughlin, by counsel Paul G. Taylor, appeals the July 29, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County granting summary judgment to Respondent the City of Martinsburg. Respondent, by counsel Keith C. Gamble and Nathan A. Carroll, filed its response.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Peter James McLaughlin ("the decedent") was a patient at a Martinsburg, West Virginia, hospital, where he voluntarily committed himself, and was taking prescription medications under doctors' orders. On the evening of December 28, 2013, the decedent exited the hospital and walked to a Burger King restaurant in Martinsburg.[1] There, he exhibited allegedly abnormal behavior that prompted an employee to call 911 for a welfare check. Martinsburg Police Officers responded to the 911 call and made contact with the decedent. Those officers determined that the decedent did not present them with probable cause on which they could exercise their police authority to seize him against his will or over his objection. Further, the responding officers agreed that the decedent did not ask for any help related to a mental illness. Emergency dispatchers received a second call shortly thereafter from Ms. McLaughlin, and law enforcement responded but were unable to make contact with the decedent because he had left the area identified by Ms. McLaughlin.[2] The decedent apparently left on foot walking along a public roadway, where he was struck by an automobile while walking on the road. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.

         Petitioner filed his initial complaint against respondent on December 12, 2014, and he filed his second amended complaint against respondent on May 7, 2015, consisting of two counts alleging that respondent was negligent and that its negligence resulted in the death of the decedent. Petitioner also sought a writ of mandamus against respondent to compel it to undergo a comprehensive review of its police practices. With regard to his negligence claims, petitioner asserts that respondent breached a general duty pursuant to West Virginia Code §§ 8-12-5 and 8-14-1 to provide adequate police protection to the decedent when officers failed to place him in some form of protective custody after interacting with him on the evening of his death. On March 6, 2015, the circuit court entered an order granting in part and denying in part respondent's motion to dismiss the mandamus action, and dismissing with prejudice Count II of that complaint. Respondent filed an answer on May 19, 2015.

         On or about January 19, 2016, petitioner filed his "Motion for Declaratory Judgment to Resolve Issues of Constitutional and Statutory Construction Applicable to this Civil Action." Therein, he asked the circuit court to "issue and declare that the construction of certain sections of the Constitution of West Virginia, Statutes of West Virginia, and decisional case law . . . are applicable to [respondent] and its Police Department and officers, . . ." Petitioner set forth nine issues he wished to have addressed, which generally relate to the duties of respondent and respondent's police officers. Those requested declarations also ask that the circuit court declare that respondent and its officers treat persons with mental illness, drug addiction behavior, and other irrational public behavior as a special class of citizens that need special services outside of the "arrest-non-arrest-separation of parties-sent on their way" standard responses.

         Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment on June 6, 2016. On July 29, 2016, the circuit court entered its order granting summary judgment to respondent. In that order, the circuit court made the following relevant findings: a) the City of Martinsburg is clearly a political subdivision and is entitled to all protections and immunities provided under the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act; b) petitioner's claim alleging that respondent's method of providing police protection caused the decedent's death falls squarely within the immunity provided under West Virginia Code § 29-12A-5(a)(5); c) petitioner cannot prove any duty as a result of the "public duty" doctrine; and d) respondent is entitled to summary judgment in petitioner's wrongful death action relating to the method and manner of providing police protection because it is barred by the Governmental Tort Claims Act and not subject to the special duty rule. The circuit court granted respondent's motion for summary judgment and denied petitioner's motion to alter or amend the order denying his motion for leave to seek declaratory judgment. It also denied petitioner's motion to compel discovery served out of time.[3]Petitioner appeals from that order.

         "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). Further,

[s]ummary judgment is appropriate where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, such as where the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case that it has the burden to prove.

Syl. Pt. 4, id.

         "'A motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law.' Syllabus point 3, Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Federal Insurance Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963)." Syl. Pt. 1, Carr v. Michael Motors, Inc., 210 W.Va. 240, 557 S.E.2d 294 (2001). As we have also explained,

[r]oughly stated, a "genuine issue" for purposes of West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) is simply one half of a trialworthy issue, and a genuine issue does not arise unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for that party. The opposing half of a trialworthy issue is present where the non-moving party can point to one or more disputed "material" facts. A material fact is one that has the capacity to sway the outcome of the litigation under the applicable law.

Syl. Pt. 5, Jividen v. Law, 194 W.Va. 705, 461 S.E.2d 451 (1995).

Stated another way, "[i]f the evidence favoring the nonmoving party is 'merely colorable . . . or is not significantly probative'" a genuine issue does not arise, and summary judgment is appropriate. Williams [v. Precision Coil, Inc.], 194 W.Va. [52, ] at 60-61, 459 S.E.2d [329, ] at 337-38 (quoting Anderson [v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.], 477 U.S. ...

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