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Quinn v. Tritt

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Jan 15, 2020
CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-CV-00632 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2020)

Opinion

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-CV-00632

01-15-2020

PHILLIP QUINN, Plaintiff v. BRENDA L. TRITT, et al., Defendants


(MANNION, D.J.)
() REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Plaintiff Phillip Quinn, proceeding pro se, is an inmate currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Frackville ("SCI-Frackville"), located in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. In his second amended complaint, Quinn brings a cause of action under the Eighth Amendment, as well as a state law negligence claim, against Brenda Tritt, Kathy Brittain, Joseph Sankus, and Daniel Rhome (collectively, the "DOC Defendants") of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"), and a state law negligence claim against the Schuylkill County Municipal Water Authority ("SCWA") and its Executive Director, Pat Caulfield. (Doc. 29). Specifically, Quinn complains of the water conditions at SCI-Frackville (the "institution"), and the injuries he allegedly sustained after consuming the institution's water. (Doc. 29). He claims that SCWA and Caulfield (collectively, the "SCWA Defendants") were negligent in allowing on-going contamination and for failing to perform adequate testing, thereby leading to his hospitalization for gastrointestinal illness. (Doc. 29, at 7-8). As for relief, Quinn requests monetary damages. (Doc. 29, at 8).

Quinn's Eight Amendment claims against the SCWA Defendants were dismissed with prejudice on January 30, 2019. (Doc. 28).

Now pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss filed by the SCWA Defendants on February 21, 2019. (Doc. 32). The SCWA Defendants argue that Quinn fails to state a claim sufficient to overcome immunity granted by the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which protects political subdivisions from tort liability. (Doc. 32, at 12).

For the reasons stated herein, the Court respectfully recommends that the SCWA Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. 32) be DENIED. I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Quinn filed the original complaint in this matter in the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas ("State Court") on July 21, 2017. (Doc. 1-1). In his complaint, Quinn brought an Eighth Amendment claim and a negligence claim against the Defendants in connection with his alleged consumption of contaminated water while incarcerated at SCI-Frackville. (Doc. 1, at 1; Doc. 1-1). After a lengthy procedural history, including the filing of an amended complaint in state court, the SCWA Defendants filed a petition for removal on March 20, 2018, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446. (Doc. 1). Thereafter, the SCWA Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on April 5, 2018. (Doc. 4).

On January 7, 2019, the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation that dismissed with prejudice Quinn's Eighth Amendment claim against the SCWA Defendants, construed as a constitutional challenge to the conditions of his confinement, for failure to state a claim. (Doc. 27). The Court further recommended dismissal of Quinn's state law negligence claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). (Doc. 27). The Court, however, recommended that Quinn be granted leave to file a curative second amended complaint that reasserted these state law negligence claims against the SCWA Defendants (along with his Eighth Amendment constitutional claims against the DOC Defendants). (Doc. 27). The District Court issued an Order adopting the Report and Recommendation on January 30, 2019 (Doc. 28), and Quinn filed a second amended complaint on February 7, 2019. (Doc. 29).

In his second amended complaint, Quinn re-alleged his Eighth Amendment claim against the DOC Defendants and his state law negligence claim against the DOC Defendants and the SCWA Defendants. (Doc. 34, at 1). On February 21, 2019, the SCWA Defendants filed a second motion to dismiss (Doc. 32). In their brief in support thereof, filed on the same day, the SCWA Defendants argued that Quinn re-asserted his conditions of confinement claim, which had been previously dismissed against them with prejudice. The SCWA Defendants also argued that any state law negligence claims fail, as Quinn has not overcome the requirements of the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. (Doc. 33). Quinn filed an opposition brief on April 26, 2019 (Doc. 42), to which the SCWA Defendants filed a reply brief on May 9, 2019. (Doc. 43).

While the Amended Complaint seemingly re-asserts an Eighth Amendment claim against the SCWA Defendants, Quinn clarified in his brief in opposition that this was inadvertent. (Doc. 42, at 2). Accordingly, the Court liberally construes the Amended Complaint as only asserting a state law negligence claim against the SCWA Defendants, despite their argument to the contrary.

Having been fully briefed, this motion (Doc. 32) is now ripe for review. II. DISCUSSION

A. LEGAL STANDARDS

1. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard for Dismissal for Failure to State a Claim

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a defendant to move to dismiss for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). "Under Rule 12(b)(6), a motion to dismiss may be granted only if, accepting all well- pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court finds the plaintiff's claims lack facial plausibility." Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)). Although the Court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true, it is not compelled to accept "unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007)). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court may consider the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, as well as "documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice." Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007).

2. Immunity under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

In 1980, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania enacted the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act ("PSTCA"). 42 Pa.C.S. § 8341 et seq. Under the PSTCA, local agencies are immune from liability for damages "on account of any injury to a person or property caused by an act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person." 42 Pa.C.S. § 8541.

This immunity, though, has limits. To be liable, or exempt from immunity, (1) damages must be recoverable had the actor causing the injury not been immune, and (2) the injury must have been caused by the negligent acts of the local agency or its employee. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(a). Additionally, the act causing the injury must fall within an enumerated list provided by the PSTCA of acts which may result in liability. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(a). Included on that list is an exemption for 'Utility service facilities,' which states that liability may be imposed for:

A dangerous condition of the facilities of steam, sewer, water, gas or electric systems owned by the local agency and located within rights-of-way, except
that the claimant to recover must establish that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred and that the local agency had actual notice or could reasonably be charged with notice under the circumstances of the dangerous condition at a sufficient time prior to the event to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(5).
For a local agency to be liable for a dangerous condition of its water facility located within rights of way, the claimant must establish: (1) that the kind of injury he or she suffered as a result of the dangerous condition was reasonably foreseeable; (2) that the local agency had actual notice or, because of the circumstances, could reasonably be charged with notice of the dangerous condition; (3) that despite notice and with sufficient ability, the agency failed to take adequate remedial measures to protect against injury from the dangerous condition; and (4) the agency's failure to take protective measures was a proximate cause of the claimant's injury and damages. Metropolitan Edison Company v. City of Reading, 640 Pa. 270, 284-85 (2017).

B. THE PSTCA DOES NOT GRANT IMMUNITY TO THE SCWA DEFENDANTS

In moving to dismiss Quinn's claim, the SCWA Defendants argue that Quinn fails to present evidence alleging that the SWCA Defendants - with sufficient notice and ability - failed to respond to the dangerous condition. (Doc. 33, at 7-8). The SWCA Defendants submit that (1) the only facility potentially at issue is a water main serving the prison, and (2) Quinn fails to allege facts putting SCWA on notice of a dangerous condition of that water main without taking timely measures to repair or otherwise protect against its condition. (Doc. 33, at 14-15). The SCWA Defendants further assert that Quinn, by including in his amended complaint the fact that SCWA notified the Frackville Administration of a water main breakage and risk of contamination on August 22, 2016, admits that SCWA adequately addressed the condition in sufficient amount of time. (Doc. 33, at 15). "Accordingly, [Quinn's] subsequent illness in September 2016 cannot, under these circumstances, be construed as being caused by a dangerous condition existing unaddressed for a sufficient amount of time so as to avoid immunity." (Doc. 33, at 15).

The water main break occurred on August 22, 2016, the same day that SCWA notified the Frackville Administration. (Doc. 29, at 2).

In fact, Quinn's amended complaint alleges negligence beyond the scope of that described by the SCWA Defendants. In addition to the August 22, 2016 water main break and ensuing illness, Quinn alleges that he experienced discolored water and a "severe foul smell" on July 13, 2017, and that on July 26, 2017 and July 31, 2017, the water was contaminated as well as discolored. (Doc. 29, at 3). In mid-August, Quinn submits that the water was again discolored and contaminated, and that the institution gave notice to not drink the water at any time between August 19, 2017 and August 21, 2017. (Doc. 29, at 3).Quinn also alleges that the Frackville administration "stated that there were several problems with the water system due to the SCMWA's losing power during thunderstorms causing the high service water pumps to be disabled, this caused a reverse flow to feed the Frackville's water system causing scaling and sediment from the pipes to contaminate the water." (Doc. 29, at 3). Quinn alleges that the water became contaminated again for two days on October 26, 2017 (Doc. 29, at 3), and that he reported to the Frackville medical department on February 2, 2018, with vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, migraines, and intestinal swelling caused by a bacterial infection from bacteria absorbed through the drinking water. (Doc. 29, at 4).

Quinn states that the water contamination continued from February to June, 2018, with him reporting to the medical department on June 5, 2018, with another bacterial infection. (Doc. 29, at 4). On June 25, 2018, the Frackville administration again gave notice not to drink the water. (Doc. 29, at 4). Quinn states that he continues to experience bacterial infections as a result of SCWA's failure to prevent contamination in the water. (Doc. 29, at 4, 6).

To avoid the immunity bar, Quinn must satisfy the four elements of the 'Utility service facilities' exemption, as delineated by the court in Metropolitan Edison Company v. City of Reading. First, he must allege a kind of injury which is a reasonably foreseeable result of the dangerous condition. Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285. Quinn alleges that the dangerous condition - water contaminated with viruses, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia - caused him to suffer a bacterial infection which included vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, migraines, and intestinal swelling. (Doc. 29, at 4, 7). These injuries are a reasonably foreseeable result of this type of contamination; therefore Quinn satisfies this element. See Gall by Gall v. Allegheny County Health Dept., 521 Pa. 68, 73 (1989) (stating that a valid cause of action is asserted when a plaintiff alleges a bacterial infection from giardia contamination).

"Damages resulting from the failure of a property owner, who knows or should know of a dangerous condition of his property and who fails to exercise due care to prevent a foreseeable harm from said dangerous condition, have long been recoverable under the common law of this Commonwealth." Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 284 n. 5. --------

Second, Quinn must allege that the local agency had actual notice or, because of the circumstances, could reasonably be charged with notice of the dangerous condition. Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285. According to Quinn's complaint, "[there] were several news articles in regards to the SCWA having knowledge in which the reservoirs [near] abandoned coal mines were contaminating the water within the Frackville and Manahoy prisons, this news article was written by Betsey Piette of the Pennsylvania News Letter, October 27, 2016." (Doc. 29, at 7). After the contamination from the water main break, Quinn alleges that the water was again contaminated on August 25, 2017, and that, per a notice from the institution, the SCWA Defendants had knowledge. (Doc. 29, at 3). The water continued to become contaminated periodically for at least one year. (Doc. 29, at 2-5). Further, Quinn alleges that the Sunday Patriot News paper [sic] published an article on July 9, 2018, describing "oversaturated chemicals and contamination within the Pennsylvania water supply," and that SCWA had prior knowledge of contamination and failed to act. Quinn's allegation that water was contaminated for a length of time in excess of one year, along with multiple newspaper articles describing the contamination, render his evidence sufficient to establish that SCWA Defendants could reasonably be charged with notice of the contamination. See Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285.

Third, Quinn must allege "that despite notice and with sufficient ability, the agency failed to take adequate remedial measures to protect against injury from the dangerous condition." Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285. As the SCWA Defendants assert, Quinn admits that the SCWA gave notification not to drink its water within a day after its water main broke on August 22, 2016. (Doc. 29, at 2). Such remedial measures, though, were not implemented upon subsequent contamination, nor was the cause of the dangerous condition fixed. On August 18, 2017, Quinn alleges that the water again was contaminated, and that this time the SCWA may not have notified the facility. (Doc. 29, at 3). Quinn also alleges that from February to June, 2018, he encountered multiple instances of contamination. (Doc. 29, at 4). Finally, Quinn claims that the newspaper articles, discussed supra, were published as early as October 27, 2016, and that the contamination continued until at least 2018. (Doc. 29, at 7-8). Quinn alleges that the SCWA Defendants allowed the contamination to carry on during this time without taking action to prevent it. (Doc. 29). Having alleged that remedial measures were not taken, Quinn satisfies this element of the exemption. See Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285.

Finally, Quinn must allege is that the agency's failure to take protective measures was a proximate cause of the claimant's injury and damages. Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285. Whenever Quinn describes his visits to the medical department with bacterial infections, he submits that the infections were caused by drinking contaminated water. (Doc. 29, at 4, 7). Therefore, Quinn satisfies this element. See Metropolitan Edison Co., 640 Pa. at 285.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Gall by Gall v. Allegheny County Health Department, explained that water contamination gives rise to an actionable claim against the local agency. In that case, the town water system became contaminated with giardia in late 1983 and early 1984. The plaintiffs in that case, a girl and her step-father, became ill with giardiasis, a bacterial infection, after drinking the water. Gall by Gall, 521 Pa. at 70. They alleged that the defendants failed to use recently developed methods to treat and cure the water, that they failed to properly filter the water, that they failed to take frequent and necessary samples to screen for giardia, and that they permitted the system to become contaminated by giardia. Gall by Gall, 521 Pa. at 70. The court found that the plaintiffs' allegations were sufficient to state a cause of action that was not barred by governmental immunity as they satisfied the elements of the 'utility service facilities' exemption. Gall by Gall, 521 Pa. at 73.

Quinn's complaint, when liberally construed, makes the same allegations as the plaintiffs in Gall by Gall. He states that the SCWA Defendants failed to repair faulty systems, allowed overflowing of contaminants, failed to sufficiently filter known contaminants, and did not properly test for the bacteria which caused his injuries. (Doc. 29, at 6-7). The contamination in Gall by Gall lasted for less one year, while Quinn alleges contamination for over one year. (Doc. 29); See Gall by Gall v. Allegheny County Health Dept., 510 A.2d 926, 927 (Pa. Commw. 1986) (reversed on other grounds). The undersigned can identify no facts to distinguish Quinn's allegations from those in Gall by Gall.

For these reasons, the Court respectfully recommends that the SCWA Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. 32) be DENIED. III. RECOMMENDATION

Based on the foregoing, it is recommended that the SCWA Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 32) be DENIED.

BY THE COURT: Dated: January 15, 2020

/s/ _________

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge NOTICE

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that the undersigned has entered the foregoing Report and Recommendation dated January 15, 2020. Any party may obtain a review of the Report and Recommendation pursuant to Rule 72.3, which provides:

Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.
Dated: January 15, 2020

/s/ _________

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge


Summaries of

Quinn v. Tritt

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Jan 15, 2020
CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-CV-00632 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2020)
Case details for

Quinn v. Tritt

Case Details

Full title:PHILLIP QUINN, Plaintiff v. BRENDA L. TRITT, et al., Defendants

Court:UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Date published: Jan 15, 2020

Citations

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-CV-00632 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2020)