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Christensen v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

April 27, 2015

HERBERT SAMUEL CHRISTENSEN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANNY C. REEVES, District Judge.

Herbert Samuel Christensen, Jr., was formerly an inmate confined at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky ("FMC-Lexington").[1] While incarcerated, Christensen filed a pro se Complaint under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671, ("FTCA") seeking recovery for the "personal physical and psychological injuries" he allegedly sustained as a result of the defendants' actions and inactions. [Record No. 1, p. 1] Christensen seeks compensatory damages of $10, 000.00. After conducting the initial screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A, the Court dismissed all but one of the plaintiff's claims. [Record No. 6] The only surviving claim is against the United States under the FTCA for negligence due to an alleged violation of Kentucky's seatbelt laws.

This matter is currently pending for consideration of the United States' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. [Record No. 14-14] Christensen has not filed a response to the defendant's motion, and the time to do so has expired. See LR 7.1(c). For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I.

On July 1, 2013, Christensen was taken by medical escort to the University of Kentucky Hospital ("UK Hospital"). He claims that, prior to leaving FMC-Lexington, he was forced to sit sideways due to the "small and narrow" seat on the wheelchair-accessible transportation van. According to Christensen, this caused the seatbelt to rest improperly on his neck, which injured his "left neck and the nerves in his left ulnar nerve distribution." [Record No. 1, p. 4] Specifically, he claims "permanent nerve damage to his left ulnar nerve [sic] pain, tingling and numbness and burning." [ Id. at 3] When Christensen asked an officer about the seatbelt, he was told that "was the best [the officer] could do." [Record No. 14-1, p. 22] Christensen also claims that, during the return trip on July 1, 2013, the seatbelt was not strapped around him at all, causing him undue stress and psychological injuries, including "mental anguish, nightmares, anxiety, and indignity of being dehumanized." [Record No. 1, p. 6] The plaintiff argues that the failure to properly use the seatbelt violated Kentucky state law, citing Ky. Rev. Stat. 189.125(6). [Record No. 1, p. 12]

On August 6, 2013, Christensen filed an Informal Resolution Form at FMC-Lexington, complaining of the staff's failure to use seatbelts but requesting no specific relief. On the same date, Christensen was provided a Request for Administrative Remedy form, which he filed on August 9, 2013. [Record No. 14-1, p. 57] The Warden responded on August 29, 2013, finding that the July 1, 2013 medical transport staff properly secured a seatbelt around the plaintiff. The Warden stated that, during the medical trip, Christensen had not communicated to the escorting staff that he was uncomfortable and made no attempt to readjust his position. Christensen was reminded that, upon his return to the institution, he was escorted to the FMC-Lexington clinic for a routine, post-medical-trip assessment and reported no pain or distress. The Warden pointed out that it was not until August 2, 2013, that Christensen reported to the clinic with claims of worsening numbness and tingling in the left arm since the last medical trip. The Warden provided a detailed summary of Christensen's prison medical records and advised that if Christensen was not satisfied with the response to his administrative complaint, he could appeal to the Regional Director. [Record No. 14-1, pp. 58-59] Christensen appealed the Warden's determination.

On November 13, 2013, the Regional Director found that the Warden had adequately addressed Christensen's complaints and that the actions of staff were within the BOP's policies and procedures. Because Christensen did not provide any evidence that he had been transported in an improper or unsafe manner, his appeal was denied. [Record No. 14-1, p. 61] Christensen did not appeal this decision to the BOP's Central Office.[2] Instead, Christensen filed an administrative tort claim with the BOP regarding the alleged seatbelt infractions. [Record No. 14-1, pp. 20-22] On December 23, 2013, the BOP rejected this claim as duplicative of a previously-filed tort claim concerning the failure to use seatbelts on medical transports on July 9, 2012 and September 6, 2012. On March 17, 2014, the BOP informed Christensen that the duplicative and responses were closed. [Record No. 14-1, pp. 4, 27] Christensen then filed suit in this Court. [Record No. 1]

II.

The United States seeks dismissal pursuant Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or, alternatively, summary judgment under Rule 56. Rule 12(b)(6) provides that if "matters outside the pleadings are presented and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56." The obligation to convert to a summary judgment motion is mandatory if matters outside the pleadings are not excluded by the Court. Max Arnold & Sons, LLC v. W.L. Hailey & Co., Inc., 452 F.3d 494, 503 (6th Cir. 2006) (applying Rule 12(d) to a Rule 12(c) motion). However, a court may consider matters outside of the pleadings without converting to a Rule 56 motion if the documents are "referred to in the complaint and are central to the claims contained therein." Bassett v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008). The government has submitted numerous exhibits and affidavits, all of which the Court has considered in evaluating the Defendant's motion. Accordingly, this motion will be considered under the Rule 56 summary judgment standard.

Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine disputes regarding any material facts and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Chao v. Hall Holding Co., 285 F.3d 415, 424 (6th Cir. 2002). A dispute over a material fact is not "genuine" unless a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. That is, the determination must be "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986); see Harrison v. Ash, 539 F.3d 510, 516 (6th Cir. 2008).

The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing conclusively that no genuine issue of material fact exists. CenTra, Inc. v. Estrin, 538 F.3d 402, 412 (6th Cir. 2008). Despite the fact that its motion is unopposed, the United States still bears this burden. See Id. Once the moving party has met its burden of production, the nonmoving party must present "significant probative evidence" of a genuine dispute to defeat the motion for summary judgment. Chao, 285 F.3d at 424. The nonmoving party cannot rely upon the assertions in its pleadings; rather, it must come forward with probative evidence, such as sworn affidavits, to support its claims. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. In deciding whether to grant summary judgment, the Court views all the facts and inferences drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). As outlined above, Christensen has not disputed the facts outlined in the government's motion.

III.

Christensen asserts state law claims of negligence and a violation of Kentucky's seatbelt law. Ky. Rev. Stat. § 189.125(6) provides that "[a] person shall not operate a motor vehicle manufactured after 1981 on the public roadways of this state unless the driver and all passengers are wearing a properly adjusted and fastened seat belt." In addition, Kentucky law provides that "[a] person injured by the violation of any statute may recover from the offender such damages as he sustained by reason of the violation, although a penalty or forfeiture is imposed for such violation." Ky. Rev. Stat. § 446.070. The latter provision simply "codifies the common law doctrine of negligence per se ' in Kentucky." Young v. Carran, 289 S.W.3d 586, 589 (Ky. App. 2008). As noted in the Court's prior Order, [Record No. 6, p. 10] Christensen's negligence claims must be directed against the United States under the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b)(1).

Generally, the United States is immune from suit except where its sovereign immunity is explicitly waived. United States v. Mitchell, 445 US. 535, 538 (1980). The FTCA provides a limited waiver of sovereign immunity; it neither creates a cause of action against the United States nor provides a means of enforcing federal statutory duties, but it allows state tort actions against the United States for personal injuries caused by governmental employees acting within the scope of their employment. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). This waiver of immunity is limited to cases in which "a private individual [would be liable] under like circumstances." 28 U.S.C. § 2674. Courts have construed this statute to include ...


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