Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of Negligence Action for Failure to Establish Duty; Adopts Economic Loss Doctrine

On September 4, 2014, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Aguilar v. RP MRP Washington Harbour, LLC, No. 13-CV-329, slip op. (D.C. Sept. 4, 2014) in which it considered whether the trial court erred in dismissing a negligence action on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to establish the existence of a recognized legal duty. Id. at 4-6. By way of background, the plaintiffs in this case “were cooks, servers, bartenders, receptionists, hairstylists, and other employees of various establishments” at a retail complex. Id. at 2. The plaintiffs sought “to recover for lost wages that resulted from the closure of their workplaces due to a flood at the . . . retail complex, which [at all relevant times was] owned and managed by [the defendants].” Id. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were negligent in failing to prevent the flooding and, as a result of the flooding, the plaintiffs’ “employers were forced to close” thereby causing the plaintiffs to lose wages. Id. at 3. The Court of Appeals focused its analysis of these allegations on whether the plaintiffs established the existence of a legal duty, which is an essential element of a claim for negligence. Id. at 6-15. In analyzing this issue, the Court of Appeals adopted the “economic loss doctrine” which, in general, “prohibits claims of negligence where a claimant seeks to recover purely economic losses sustained as a result of an interruption in commerce caused by a third party” (i.e., a person with whom the plaintiff has no special relationship). Id. at 1-2, 9-10. Applying this doctrine, the Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiffs’ action was properly dismissed because the plaintiffs sought purely economic damages, and did not have a special relationship with any of the defendants. Id. at 6-15. For general background about the tort of negligence in the District of Columbia, see Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia § 8 (2014).