WASHINGTON – A federal judge has ruled that a Maryland couple can sue Metro for their son’s deadly heart attack after he climbed a non-working escalator at the Bethesda station on a sweltering summer day in 1998.
Richard H. Smith was 37 when he collapsed and suffered a fatal heart attack after he reached the top of the 107-foot-tall escalator during the afternoon of July 20, 1998. At the time, two of the station’s three escalators were out of service for repairs, and Metro officials had shut down the third escalator to allow passengers to walk up and down.
Smith’s parents sued Metro in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt in July 1999, seeking $2 million in damages. Richard and Nancy Smith said Metro was negligent for not maintaining at least one working escalator that afternoon, when temperatures reached the mid 90s.
The lawsuit says about 600 passengers were leaving the station when Smith, who lived in Rockville, died. The only ways out of the station at the time were the stalled escalator and an elevator that could only handle about 200 passengers an hour.
Metro lawyers sought to have the case thrown out, citing a law that makes government officials immune from being sued for carrying out their official duties.
But U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. ruled this week that Metro officials cannot claim immunity in this case. Without ruling on the merits of the Smiths’ lawsuit, Williams said it is Metro’s duty to provide a safe way to enter and exit subway stations.
“The passengers cannot tunnel out of the ground on their own. They are confined to the routes the carrier provides,” Williams wrote.
Metro’s policy is to not comment on cases in litigation, said spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson.
But the Smiths’ attorney said Williams’ ruling is a victory for all Metro riders.
“Metro’s argument was, `We are immune from this,’ which goes back to the days of the king can do no wrong,” said Ronald Karp, the family’s attorney.
Karp said that Metro attorneys have not told him whether the transit agency would file an appeal or go to trial.
Williams’ ruling comes the same week that Metro announced a pilot program to test portable defibrillators in a half-dozen D.C. Metro stations. Managers at Metro Center, Farragut West, McPherson Square, Foggy Bottom, Federal Triangle and Judiciary Square stations are being trained to use the heart-shocking defibrillators in case of heart attacks, according to Metro.
About 80 station managers are participating in the training from George Washington University instructors. The defibrillators should be in the stations in the next few weeks. All of Metro’s more than 400 station managers also are trained in CPR.
Johnson said the defibrillator program is not a response to Smith’s heart attack.
“This is a pilot to see if defibrillators will work in public places, but it doesn’t have anything to do with this,” Johnson said.