Jon Campisi Aug. 2, 2013, 8:03am


A federal lawsuit that had been filed against the Southeastern Pennsylvania

Transportation Authority by those representing the estate of a man found dead on a mass transit vehicle has been dismissed by a federal judge in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a defense motion this week seeking the case’s dismissal.

The civil action, reported on early last year by the Pennsylvania Record, was initiated in January 2012 by lawyers representing Lisa Reynolds, a New Jersey woman in charge of the estate of the late Leonard Sedden, a SEPTA passenger who was discovered lying in his own urine, covered in drool and largely unresponsive on April 11, 2010, at about 4 a.m. while aboard the “night owl” bus traveling from SEPTA’s 69th Street Terminal in Delaware County to the Frankford Transportation Center in Philadelphia.

The suit, which had been filed in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court by lawyers with the city firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, and which was eventually removed by the defense to the federal courthouse, claimed that when the bus’s driver phoned dispatch to see how to handle the situation with Sedden, he was told to continue with his route so as not to delay the bus schedule.

When the bus reached the City Hall stop at 15th and Market Streets in downtown Philadelphia, the suit stated, a SEPTA supervisor boarded the vehicle, observed a still-breathing Sedden, and instructed the driver to continue along the normally scheduled route without stopping to secure Sedden medical assistance.

Sedden was ultimately pronounced dead by SEPTA police by the time the bus had reached the Frankford Transportation Center at about 5:30 that morning.

Reynolds, the plaintiff, claimed in her suit that SEPTA was negligent when it failed to take the necessary steps to prevent Sedden’s death.

The complaint contained claims of federal civil rights violations.

In her July 31 memorandum, Tucker wrote that while Reynolds met the first prong of a Monell claim by sufficiently pleading SEPTA’s policy or custom of not disrupting services to provide medical care to passengers, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate a causal link between SEPTA’s alleged policy and deprivation of a constitutional right.

Reynolds had argued that Third Circuit Court of Appeals precedence has shown that a causal link could be demonstrated by showing that “policymakers were aware of similar unlawful conduct in the past, but failed to take precautions against future violations, and that this failure, at least in part, led to [plaintiff’s] injury,” the judicial memorandum shows.

Citing another case presided over by fellow Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Ronald Buckwalter, Tucker noted that it is not unlawful conduct for SEPTA to continue a train route without rendering emergency services to a decedent because the agency has no duty to administer such services.

Because Reynolds failed to demonstrate that SEPTA was aware of similar unlawful conduct having occurred in the past, using Buckwalter’s case of Yeremian v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority as a reference, Reynolds failed to establish the causal link between SEPTA’s policy and a deprivation of a constitutional right as required by Monell.

Tucker noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the due process clause of the Constitution doesn’t require a state to administer aid when it would be necessary to secure life, liberty or property interests, and the Third Circuit similarly determined that the Due Process clause doesn’t guarantee “a federal constitutional right to rescue services, competent or otherwise.”

“The death of Mr. Sedden was a tragic event and the Court sympathizes with his family for their loss, however, despite this unfortunate event SEPTA did not deprive the [sic] Mr. Sedden of a constitutional right,” Tucker wrote in his memorandum. “SEPTA was under no obligation to provide rescue services to Mr. Sedden therefore SEPTA’s lack of action in this matter did not rise to a constitutional violation,” under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act.

The judge also determined that the plaintiff failed to satisfy the fourth prong of the “state-created danger claim,” which is an exception to the general rule that the due process clause doesn’t require states to render aid to their citizens.

The fourth prong involves a state actor using his or her authority to create an opportunity for danger that otherwise would not have existed.

Reynolds argued that SEPTA’s policy or custom of not disrupting mass transit services to provide medical care to passengers was an affirmative act that created a danger to Sedden, the deceased man.

In Yeremian, however, the court had determined that SEPTA’s policy or custom was not an affirmative act, and in this case, Tucker determined, Reynolds was unable to identify an affirmative act by SEPTA that created a danger to Sedden as required by Yeremian.

Lastly, Tucker wrote that there was nothing in the complaint to suggest that anything occurred aboard the SEPTA bus that caused Sedden’s condition.

“There is nothing in the complaint to suggest that SEPTA created this condition or made Mr. Sedden more vulnerable to the danger as the danger existed before the bus driver even noticed Mr. Sedden,” Tucker wrote. “Given the allegations in the complaint, the Court does not find there has been a constitutional violation under any of theories Plaintiff has set forth in the response to the Motion to Dismiss.”

Tucker also declined to exercise jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s state law claims, which included wrongful death, negligence and survival action.

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