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Samuel M. Roberts v. Los Alamos National Security

April 26, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge


Plaintiff Samuel Roberts, an employee of the University of Rochester ("UR"), brings this action seeking compensation for serious injuries he received during an experiment with a High Yield Neutron Temporal Diagnostic (colloquially referred to as the "light pipe," after its most visible component) at the UR's Laboratory for Laser Energetics ("LLE") on August 6, 2008. While adjusting a pressure valve on the light pipe, it exploded, causing a support bracket to strike plaintiff's head and neck, and rendering him a quadriplegic.

The laser light pipe was a piece of diagnostic equipment owned by the LLE, which uses a streak camera and fast photo multiplier tube ("PMT") to gather data about the time interval between a laser shot and the resulting production of neutrons. Light was delivered from a scintillor or a pressurized carbon dioxide cell to the camera and PMT by means of a highly polished steel pipe approximately 2" in diameter, and the light pipe extended from a support bracket attached to a raised personnel platform similar to a catwalk inside the target bay, down through the floor of the target bay. The light pipe was kept in the LLE's OMEGA Laser Facility, and was made available to outside laboratories for various experiments. Although the outside laboratories could propose and outline the experiments they wished to have conducted and the information they wished to gather, the laser shots themselves were conducted solely by UR employees under the control of a Shot Director. There were five scientists who were identified as "principal investigators" for the experiment in which plaintiff was injured: one from the UR, two from Los Alamos National Security, LLC ("Los Alamos"), one from AWE, PLC ("AWE"), and one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ("MIT").

Barred by New York Workers Compensation Law from bringing an action against his employer, UR, directly, plaintiff brings this negligence action against the employers of each the non-UR "principal investigators" who were associated with the experiment. Those defendants have, in turn, asserted claims against the UR as a third-party defendant.

The UR and the defendants have now filed summary judgment motions, primarily arguing that the UR is directly and solely responsible for the plaintiff's injuries, and that the defendants neither owed nor assumed a duty of care toward the plaintiff. Plaintiff has cross moved for summary judgment against Los Alamos alone, arguing, inter alia, that two Los Alamos employees were members of a particular UR oversight body, the Facilities Advisory and Scheduling Committee ("FASC") which was responsible to ensure that the light pipe had been properly "qualified" for use, and failed to do so.

The parties have also filed motions to strike. Plaintiff moves to strike Los Alamos's answer to the complaint. Los Alamos moves to strike plaintiff's Statement of Undisputed Facts in support of its motion for summary judgment against Los Alamos. The UR has moved to strike a surreply which plaintiff allegedly filed without leave of Court.

For the reasons that follow, the defendants' and UR's motions for summary judgment (Dkt. #56, #61, #66, and #75) are granted, and the complaint and cross claims are dismissed in their entirety. Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment against Los Alamos (Dkt. #63) is denied, and plaintiff's motion to strike Los Alamos's answer (Dkt. #65), Los Alamos's motion to strike plaintiff's statement of undisputed facts (Dkt. #80), and UR's motion to strike plaintiff's surreply (Dkt. #86) are denied as moot.


Rule 56(c) provides that a moving party is entitled to summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court's role in determining a motion for summary judgment is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. When considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must draw inferences from underlying facts "in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986), quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).

I. Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment

In order to establish his negligence claims, plaintiff must prove that for each defendant that it "owed the plaintiff a cognizable duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the plaintiff suffered damages as a proximate result of that breach." King v. Crossland Sav. Bank, 111 F.3d 251, 259 (2d Cir. 1997). Here, the initial and potentially dispositive question is whether, and to what extent, any of the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty of care.

Defendants and the UR argue that UR, and UR alone, bears the liability for plaintiff's injuries. Plaintiff has received substantial sums under UR's Workers Compensation policy, and will continue to do so. The UR employed both plaintiff and his supervisor Dr.Vladimir Glebov, the individual who asked plaintiff to make the pressure adjustment that resulted in his injuries. UR was solely responsible for the design, fabrication, installation, maintenance and use of the light pipe.

Plaintiff argues, however, that each of the "investigators" for the experiment that was taking place on August 6, 2008 were jointly and severally liable for his injuries. It is undisputed that none of the investigators were permitted to, or attempted to, execute the experiment themselves: conducting the experiment was within the sole authority and control of the UR.

None of the investigators were present in the target bay where the OMEGA Laser was housed at the time of plaintiff's injuries, and none of the investigators had any interaction with plaintiff or any physical contact with, or control over, the light pipe. In fact, most of the investigators never even saw the light pipe in person before the accident. MIT "investigator" ...

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