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Hart v. City of Santee

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Orangeburg Division

July 25, 2017

Ann P. Hart, as administrator of the Estate of Guy William Hart, Plaintiff,
v.
City of Santee, Santee Police Department, SPD Chief of Police Dennis “Bing” Jones, and SPD Officer Shawn Hollingquest, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Ann P. Hart (“Plaintiff”), as administrator of the estate of Guy William Hart (“Hart”), brought this action asserting claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants City of Santee (the “City”), [1] Santee Police Department (“SPD”), [2] SPD Chief of Police Dennis “Bing” Jones (“Jones”), and SPD Officer Shawn Hollingquest (“Hollingquest”)[3] (collectively, except for Hollingquest, “Defendants”) after Hart was struck and killed by a vehicle as he crossed a highway in Santee, South Carolina. (See ECF No. 1.) Three Defendants[4] have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim for which the court could grant relief. (ECF No. 10.) For the reasons that follow, the court GRANTS Defendants' motion to dismiss (ECF No. 10) and DISMISSES Plaintiff's complaint (ECF No. 1).

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In her complaint, Plaintiff alleges that on November 16, 2013, Hart, while crossing a highway in Santee, was struck by a vehicle driven by Otha Green Vincent, III (“Vincent”), and sustained mortal injuries. (See ECF No. 1 at 1-3.) Plaintiff alleges on information and belief that, at the time of the incident, Vincent was impaired by the use of alcohol, driving at an excessive speed, and otherwise violating traffic laws. (Id. at 3.) Shortly after the collision occurred, Hollingquest arrived on the scene, and Plaintiff alleges that Hollingquest could see that Hart had sustained serious injuries and knew that he would likely die. (Id. at 4.) Hollingquest requested emergency medical technicians, but Hart died while technicians attempted to stabilize him and before he could be transported to a hospital. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that neither Hollingquest nor other SPD officers took any actions to determine Vincent's capacity to safely operate his vehicle; the incident report does not mention any attempt to inspect Vincent for any sign of intoxication or to conduct field sobriety tests or blood-alcohol tests. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that the on-scene investigation lasted approximately one and a half hours; that Hollingquest's report focuses on the condition of the vehicle and not on the condition of Vincent, the driver; and that an available specialized accident investigation team was not asked to assist in the investigation. (Id. at 5.) Vincent was not charged with a crime. (Id. at 4.)

         Plaintiff alleges that SPD had a duty under South Carolina law to investigate the collision that killed Hart. (Id. at 5.) Plaintiff asserts that a South Carolina statutory provision “requires an officer to administer” sobriety tests under certain circumstances. (Id.) The provision to which Plaintiff points, in relevant part, states:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person must submit to either one or a combination of chemical tests of his breath, blood, or urine for the purpose of determining the presence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of alcohol and drugs if there is probable cause to believe that the person violated or is under arrest for a violation of Section 56-5-2945.

S.C. Code. Ann. § 56-5-2946(A) (2016). The provision to which § 56-5-2946(A) refers makes a person guilty of a felony if, while driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, he violates the law or a duty imposed by the law, which proximately causes another person's death. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2945. Plaintiff alleges that, if Hollingquest had properly ascertained Vincent's capacity to drive, he would have been required under § 56-5-2946(A) to administer one of the sobriety tests mentioned in the statute. (Id. at 6.) Thus, Plaintiff alleges, SPD failed “to fulfill its duty to properly investigate and preserve evidence.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that SPD's failure to adequately investigate the collision resulted in the loss of “virtually all of the critical evidence of Vincent's culpability.” (Id. at 5; see Id. at 6.) Plaintiff further alleges that SPD's failure to investigate the collision reduces the likelihood that Vincent will be held criminally liable and diminishes the likelihood of Plaintiff's success in any civil action she brings against Vincent as well as the value of any such action. (Id. at 7.)

         Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserts four claims in her complaint. First, Plaintiff asserts a claim for respondeat superior liability against the City. (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff explains that Jones' and Hollingquest's actions were performed in the course and scope of their employment with the City and that the City, as an employer, is vicariously liable for the injuries she sustained. (Id.)

         Second, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim for violation of her procedural Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Id. at 8-9.) Plaintiff asserts that she had a right to an adequate investigation of the collision, that she was deprived of this right when SPD failed to provide a reasonably diligent investigation, and that the deprivation resulted in elimination or impairment of her property interests, namely the reduced value of her potential recovery from a civil action. (Id.) Plaintiff further asserts that this deprivation of her right occurred without a pre-deprivation opportunity to challenge SPD's decision to not adequately investigate, that there are no post-deprivation remedies, and that Defendants deprived her of her property interests under color of law. (Id.)

         Third, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim for infringement of her right of access to courts under Article IV of, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to, the United States Constitution. (Id. at 9-11.) Plaintiff again asserts that SPD had a duty to adequately investigate the collision that killed Hart and that SPD failed to meet this duty. (Id.) She asserts that SPD's failure to investigate was done under color of law and with deliberate indifference to her rights, namely her right to bring a civil action against Vincent, which was impaired by the lack of evidence resulting from the failure to adequately investigate. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts that the impairment of these rights infringed on her constitutional right of access to the courts. (Id.)

         Fourth, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim, pursuant to Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), against the City. (ECF No. 1 at 11.) Plaintiff alleges that SPD “has a policy of failing to meaningfully investigate crashes” and “systematically misclassifies vehicular crimes as ‘accidents, ' creating a false appearance of declining crime rates while motorists like Vincent escape consequences.” (Id. at 1.) Plaintiff asserts that the City, acting through SPD, Jones, and Hollingquest, had policies or practices in effect that proximately resulted in constitutional violations, namely the deprivation of her property interests in a civil action against Vincent without due process and the infringement of her access to the courts. (Id. at 11.)

         On February 2, 2017, Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that all of the claims asserted in Plaintiffs complaint fail to state a claim for which the court could grant relief. (ECF No. 10.) The gist of Defendants' motion is that, with respect to the three § 1983 claims, Plaintiff's complaint fails to identify a cognizable duty that they owed to her that they are alleged to have violated and that, with respect to the respondeat superior claim, the City cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983 for the actions of its employees via a theory of respondeat superior. (See id.) After being fully briefed and argued (see ECF Nos. 10-1, 17, 18, 21), the motion is ready for disposition.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted); see also Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) . . . does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”). To be legally sufficient a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This means that a complainant's factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (citations omitted). When considering a motion to dismiss, the court should accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and should view the complaint in a light most favorable to the complainant. Ostrzenski v. Seigel, 177 F.3d 245, 251 (4th Cir. 1999); Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). Dismissal is appropriate if, even accepting well-pled allegations and viewing the complaint in the complainant's favor, the complaint could not state a legally cognizable claim for which the court could grant relief. See Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999) (“[A] Rule 12(b)(6) motion should only be granted if, after accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual ...


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