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Gillespie v. Ashford Hospitality Prime

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

July 14, 2015

SELENA GILLESPIE, Plaintiff,
v.
ASHFORD HOSPITALITY PRIME, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. CACHERIS, District Judge.

This personal injury action is before the Court on two motions to dismiss the amended complaint. [Dkts. 29, 30.] For the following reasons, the Court will deny in part both motions to dismiss.

I. Background

At the motion to dismiss stage, the Court must read the complaint as a whole, construe the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, and accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Thus, the following facts taken from the amended complaint are accepted as true for purposes of these motions.

Defendants Ashford Hospitality Prime and Ashford Gateway TRS Corporation ("Ashford") own and operate the Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. (Am. Compl. [Dkt. 28] ¶ 5.) Defendant Humphrey Rich Construction Group, Inc. ("Humphrey Rich") (collectively "Defendants") was hired by Ashford as a general contractor to perform significant renovations to the Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel. (Id. at ¶¶ 6-7.) The renovation included "substantial work to the ceilings and lighting fixtures in the hotel's ball rooms." (Id. at ¶ 8.)

On August 31, 2014, Plaintiff Selena Gillespie ("Plaintiff") was a guest of the hotel and attended a family reunion in the ballroom. (Am. Compl. ¶ 10.) "Without warning to the plaintiff, one of the lighting fixtures in the ballroom detached from the ceiling directly above the plaintiff." (Id. at ¶ 11.) The light fixture itself did not directly strike Plaintiff, but it did strike the Plaintiff's infant granddaughter, who was sitting in her lap at the time. (Id.) As a result of the falling fixture, "Plaintiff was battered, struck and injured by blood, brain and other debris." (Id.) "[A]s a direct and proximate result of the negligence of the defendants... plaintiff has suffered severe injury from the falling fixture incident, including physical, mental and emotional harm." (Id. at ¶ 12.)

Plaintiff claims that "Defendants' actions in the design, installation and inspection of the lighting fixtures were reckless, evincing willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the plaintiff." (Am. Compl. at ¶ 9.) Plaintiff alleges that "Defendants knew that there would be large gatherings of people congregating under these lighting fixtures creating a heightened duty to make sure that the renovations were performed properly and resulted in a safe environment." (Id.) Plaintiff requests $500, 000 in damages, jointly and severally, against Ashford and Humphrey Rich.[1] (Id. at 3.)

Ashford and Humphrey Rich have both filed motions to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Ashford's Mot. [Dkt. 29]; Humphrey Rich's Mot. [Dkt. 30].) Both argue that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for relief under a theory of negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"), or negligent infliction of emotional distress ("NIED"), and that her allegations do not support a claim for punitive damages. (Id.) Plaintiff opposes Defendants motions and argues that she has sufficiently alleged facts to state a claim for negligence and punitive damages under Virginia law.[2] (Pl.'s Opp'n at 4 ("Plaintiff does not make a claim for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress in her Amended Complaint.").) Ashford filed a reply brief [Dkt. 37] and the Court heard oral argument of counsel on July 8, 2015. Thus, the motion is ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

A court reviewing a complaint on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must accept well-pleaded allegations as true, and must construe all allegations in favor of the plaintiff. See Randall v. United States, 30 F.3d 518, 522 (4th Cir. 1994). However, the court need not accept as true legal conclusions disguised as factual allegations. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679-81 (2009). Therefore, a pleading that offers only a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007). Nor will a complaint that tenders mere "naked assertion[s]" devoid of "further factual enhancement." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557.

III. Analysis

As a threshold matter, despite prior notice from the Court that the original complaint failed to clearly specify what theory of relief Plaintiff was pursuing, the amended complaint does little to resolve this defect. (See Mem. Op. [Dkt. 26] at 4 ("As an initial matter, the theory of relief is unclear from the face of Plaintiff's Complaint.").) In her original complaint, Plaintiff attempted to state a claim for NIED. (Id. at 6.) Although still not expressly clear from the face of the amended complaint, it now appears that Plaintiff is asserting a claim for negligence against both Ashford and Humphrey Rich. (See Pl.'s Opp'n at 3 ("[T]he Plaintiff alleges that she sustained injuries, cognizable under Virginia law, as a proximate result of Defendants' negligence."); id. at 4 at ("Plaintiff does not make a claim for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress in her Amended Complaint.").) Indeed, Plaintiff's counsel confirmed this at oral argument.

In Virginia, to recover on a negligence claim, Plaintiff must establish that: (1) Defendants owed Plaintiff a duty of care, (2) Defendants breached that duty of care, and (3) Defendants' breach proximately caused Plaintiff to suffer damages or injury. Atrium Unit Owners Ass'n v. King, 585 S.E.2d 545, 548 (Va. 2003) (citing Fox v. Custis, 372 S.E.2d 373, 375 (Va. 1988); Trimyer v. Norfolk Tallow Co., 66 S.E.2d 441, 443 (Va. 1951)); see also Jappell v. Am. Ass'n of Blood Banks, 162 F.Supp.2d 476, 479 (E.D. Va. 2001) ("The prima facie case of negligence includes proof of a legal duty, breach of that duty, and consequent injury.") (citation omitted). Stated differently, an action for negligence lies only where there has been a failure to perform some legal duty that the defendant owed to the injured party. See Balderson v. Robertson, 125 S.E.2d 180 (Va. 1962); Blue Ridge Serv. Corp. v. Saxon Shoes, Inc., 624 S.E.2d 55 (Va. 2006). "The standard of care required to comply with the duty of care may be established by the common law duty or statute." Steward v. Holland Family Props., LLC, 726 S.E.2d 251, 254 (Va. 2012).

At the motion to dismiss stage, the Court is mindful that dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is disfavored. Fayetteville Investors v. Commercial Builders, Inc., 936 F.2d 1462, 1471 (4th Cir. 1991) (citing 2A Moore's Federal Practice, ¶ 12.07, p. 12-63). For that reason, and for the following reasons discussed below, the Court will deny in part Ashford's motion to dismiss and deny in part Humphrey Rich's motion to dismiss. The Court will address each ...


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