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Federal sovereign immunity bars gross negligence claim

On remand from the Virginia Supreme Court for application of federal maritime law, the court finds that defendant is entitled to federal sovereign immunity, and, as a result, the gross negligence claims against him must be dismissed.

Background

Pridemore was on a police boat owned by the city of Norfolk. His employer upgraded and repaired the vessel. Hryniewich, a police department employee, was operating the vessel when it capsized during a sea trial. Pridemore sued the city and Hryniewich, alleging simple and gross negligence, and sought damages for injuries sustained during the incident.

In a previous phase of the case, this court found that Hryniewich was entitled to state sovereign immunity from Pridemore’s simple negligence claims. This court allowed the gross negligence claims to go forward after denying Hryniewich’s motion for summary judgment, which asserted that under federal maritime law, he had qualified immunity from Pridemore’s gross negligence claims.

After an interlocutory appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia has remanded with instructions to apply federal maritime.

Discussion

“Under federal law, police officers are protected ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known’ … This immunity ‘provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986).

“Under maritime law, ‘[q]ualified or good faith immunity is an affirmative defense that must be pleaded by a defendant official.’ … ‘[R]uling on a defense of qualified immunity requires three distinct steps: (1) identification of the specific right allegedly violated [by the defendant]; (2) determining whether at the time of the alleged violation the right was clearly established; and (3) … determining whether a reasonable person in the [defendant’s] position would have known that [his or her conduct] would violate that right.’ …

“Plaintiffs fail to allege a necessary violation of a constitutional or statutory right and thus do not satisfy the first of three prongs necessary to impose liability on a governmental officer otherwise entitled to federal qualified immunity.”

Plaintiffs argue that under Malley, because Hryniewich was “plainly incompetent” while operating the boat, he is not entitled to federal qualified immunity. In other words, if he was “plainly incompetent,” plaintiffs assert that they do not need to show a violation of a constitutional or statutory right. But Malley and the other authorities plaintiffs cite do not support their argument that the plainly incompetent standard applies “as a standalone alternative to the traditional qualified immunity analysis[.]”

Plaintiffs argue that Hryniewich is not entitled to qualified immunity under the state-created danger doctrine. Under this doctrine, there is no immunity if a plaintiff proves that a government official “created or increased the risk of private danger, and did so through affirmative acts[.]”

But the doctrine is limited to due-process claims, which have not been alleged in this case. Further, plaintiff have not alleged a private harm. The doctrine “emerged from jurisprudence holding that the government generally has no duty to protect individuals from privately inflicted harms. … Unsurprisingly, the cases on which Plaintiff rely … all involve affirmative conduct by governmental officials that resulted in an increased risk or manifest private danger at the hands of a third party.” There are no allegations concerning a third party in this case. The state-created danger does not apply.

Hryniewich is entitled to summary judgment and the case is dismissed with prejudice.

Pridemore v. Hryniewich. CL16-3261-00/01, Oct. 9, 2019; Norfolk Cir. Ct. (Lannetti). Keith L. Leonard, David H. Sump, William A.M. Burke, James L. Chapman IV, Darius K. Davenport, John B. Mumford Jr.  for the parties. VLW 019-8-089, 12 pp.

VLW 019-8-089