Fourth Circuit Survey

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Week of June 10, 2019 through June 14, 2019

L-3 Commc’n Corp. v. Serco, Inc. (Keenan 6/10/2019): The Fourth Circuit held that evidence of a long-standing business relationship may establish a business expectancy as a matter of law and should be left to the factfinder to determine. The Court vacated the District Court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded the case for further proceedings. Full Opinion

United States v. Battle (Quattlebaum 6/11/2019): The Fourth Circuit held that a conviction for assault with intent to murder is a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The Court affirmed the District Court of Maryland’s order to deny the defendant’s motion to vacate his sentence. Full Opinion

Michael Pense v. MD Dep’t of Pub. Safety (King 6/11/2019): The Fourth Circuit held that without a provision giving express consent for suit in federal court, a state can assert Eleventh Amendment protection with respect to claims arising under the Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). The Court reversed the District Court of Maryland’s order denying dismissal of Plaintiff’s FEPA claims and remanded the case for further proceedings. Full Opinion

Xia Bi v. McAuliffe (Wilkinson 6/12/2019): The Fourth Circuit held that making an investment based on media statements without translating or reviewing the contract is not justifiable reliance to support a claim of fraud. The Court affirmed the Eastern District of Virginia’s order granting summary judgement in favor of the defendants. Full Opinion

United States v. James Hill, III (Wynn 6/13/2019): The Fourth Circuit held that the Hate Crimes Act falls within Congress’s Commerce Clause power and is therefore constitutional. The Court reasoned that the government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault “interfered with commercial or other economic activity” that the victim was engaged in at the time the assault occurred. The Court reversed the Eastern District of Virginia’s order granting the defendant’s motion for acquittal and remanded the case for further proceedings.  Full Opinion

Northrop Grumman Sys. Corp. v. U.S. Dep’t of Labor (Quattlebaum 6/13/2019):  The Fourth Circuit held that in order for a whistleblower’s actions to be protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the violations complained of may not expand beyond the six fraud categories set forth in the Act. The Court vacated the Administrative Review Board’s decision in favor of the plaintiff and remanded the case to the Administrative Law Judge for dismissal.Full Opinion


Highlight Case

Michael Small v. Welldyne, Inc.

Decided: June 12, 2019

The Fourth Circuit held that it was proper for the jury to decide whether contributory negligence existed when an elderly woman took prescription medication that was sent to her by mistake. 

In the present case, Ms. Small, who was accustomed to receiving her medication in the mail, ingested prescription medication that was sent to her by mistake of the defendant. On the incident in question, the medication was delivered in a package addressed to Ms. Small and was similar in size and color to the one that Ms. Small usually received. However, the medication bottles bore the name of another recipient as well as the name of the medication. Ms. Small was elderly and barely literate, and thus did not read the labels of the bottles before taking the pills. After ingesting the pills, Ms. Small experienced hallucinations and confusion, which eventually led to a fall that fractured her leg. Ms. Small was admitted to the hospital for the broken leg and was treated for other medical problems that arose during her stay. She died approximately ten days after being released from the hospital.

The plaintiff brought suit against the defendant for negligence, negligence per se, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. In ruling on the issue, the District court found that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent and was barred from recovery.

On appeal, the Court reasoned that summary judgment is rarely appropriate when deciding contributory negligence because the reasonable care determination is better left for jury determination. Summary judgment may be appropriate when the evidence is clear that the plaintiff did not use reasonable care and that failure to do so was at least one of the proximate causes of the injury. The Court declined to find, as a matter of law, that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent for failing to read the label provided on the medication bottles. 

The Court also addressed the issue of proximate cause and whether Ms. Small’s injuries and eventual death were too attenuated from the defendant’s mistake. The Court noted the Plaintiff’s expert witness testimony but declined to rule on the validity of the expert witnesses. In remanding the case, the Court ordered that a Daubert hearing should be conducted to determine whether the experts should be excluded. The plaintiff’s expert testimony was the primary evidence proving proximate cause, and without such testimony the Court may find that there is no genuine issue of material fact. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Eastern District of North Carolina’s order granting summary judgement in favor of the Defendant on contributory negligence and causation and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Kendall Eoute