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Rabenstine v. National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Newport News Division

June 1, 2015



HENRY COKE MORGAN, Jr., Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court pursuant to Defendant James Hagan's ("Defendant" or "Hagan") Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant James Hagan ("Motion"). Doc. 24. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion and dismisses Defendant Hagan from this matter WITH PREJUDICE.


A. Factual Allegations

This is a personal injury action arising out of a boating accident brought "under the general maritime and tort laws of the United States as well as any other applicable law of the Commonwealth of Virginia." Compl. ¶ 1. Defendants removed the action to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on June 27, 2014, and the Court's admiralty jurisdiction has been invoked. Doc. 1. Plaintiff Victoria Rabenstine ("Plaintiff" or "Rabenstine") is a resident of Virginia. Compl. ¶ 2. There are three Defendants in this action: Defendant National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, Inc. ("NASBLA"); Defendant Hagan, a foreign citizen; and Defendant State of Louisiana, through the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries ("Louisiana"). Id . ¶¶ 3-4. Rabenstine was a student in a "Tactical Operator's Course" in which Defendant Hagan was an instructor. Id . ¶¶ 6-8. Defendant Hagan is alleged to be an agent or servant of Defendants NASBLA and Louisiana. Id . ¶ 8.

Rabenstine was injured in a boating accident on May 21, 2012, which she alleges was caused by Defendants' negligence. Id . ¶ 9. The accident occurred on the James River near Craney Island, which is purported to be navigable water, when a student in the Tactical Operator's Course performed a ninety degree starboard turn called a "Gate Drill." Id . During this drill, the vessel suddenly shifted to the port side and threw Plaintiff about the deck of the vessel, causing injury. Id . ¶¶ 7, 9. Rabenstine alleges that at the time of the accident the vessel was under Defendant Hagan's care and control and that he was negligent in his instruction of the student operator. Doc. 29 at 2. It is not disputed that Hagan was acting within the scope of his employment with the Louisiana at the time of the accident. Id. at 6.

B. Procedural History

Defendant filed the present Motion on May 8, 2015 contending that he is immune from suit under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Doc. 25. Plaintiff argues in her response[1] that Defendant enjoys no qualified immunity in the Commonwealth of Virginia because any immunity he might be entitled to in Louisiana does not extend to the Commonwealth. Doc. 29 at 1. She also reasserts the argument rejected by this Court in a previous opinion that the State of Louisiana waived its sovereign immunity when it removed the action to federal court. Id. at 3; see Doc. 21 at 10, n.3.[2] Lastly, Plaintiff contends that Defendant was performing a ministerial and not discretionary function at the time of the accident. Doc. 29 at 7. Defendants Hagan and Louisianan replied to Plaintiff's arguments on May 22 and May 23, 2015 respectively.


A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 is appropriate only when a court, viewing the record as a whole and in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, determines that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. See, e.g., Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986); Terry's Floor Fashions v. Burlington Indus., 763 F.2d 604, 610 (4th Cir. 1985). Once a party has properly filed evidence supporting the motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party may not rest upon mere allegations in the pleadings, but must instead set forth specific facts illustrating genuine issues for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24. Such facts must be presented in the form of exhibits and sworn affidavits. Failure by the nonmoving party to rebut the motion with such evidence on its behalf will result in summary judgment when appropriate.

"[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment... against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322. A mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment. Rather, the evidence must be such that the fact-finder reasonably could find for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). Although the Court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, in order to successfully defeat a motion for summary judgment a nonmoving party cannot rely on "mere belief or conjecture, or the allegations and denials contained in his pleadings." Doyle v. Sentry Ins., 877 F.Supp. 1002, 1005 (E.D. Va. 1995) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324).

B. Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity is immunity from civil liability enjoyed by government officials performing discretionary functions provided their conduct "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Wheeler v. Gilmore, 998 F.Supp. 666, 669 (E.D. Va. 1998) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In determining whether a state official is entitled to qualified immunity, this Court must make a two-fold determination. Pittman v. Nelms, 87 F.3d 116, 118 (4th Cir. 1996). Firstly, the Court must determine whether a "defendant's conduct violated a constitutional right of the plaintiff." Id. at 119. The case will only proceed to the second level of analysis if the Court finds that Defendant acted illegally by violating either Plaintiff's constitutional or statutory right. Id .; see also Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818. If so, it must then be determined "whether the law ...

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