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Sandra Helbing and Allison List v. Wyndham Hotels and Resorts

February 11, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

The plaintiffs are the Estate of John Helbing, and his personal representatives, Sandra Helbing and Allison List. They filed suit in state court, averring that John Helbing died from injuries suffered on February 1, 2008, after a slip and fall on black ice at a hotel allegedly operated by the defendant, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, LLC ("Wyndham Hotels"), in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The complaint sets forth a claim for wrongful death as well as a survival action.

The case was filed in state court on or about April 23, 2010, and Defendant removed it here on the basis of our diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), on May 24, 2010. It is controlled by Pennsylvania law. We are considering Defendant's motion for summary judgment, which principally argues as follows: (1) Plaintiffs sued the wrong party as the hotel was owned by another entity and operated by yet a third; and (2) in any event, the Pennsylvania doctrine of hills and ridges establishes that it cannot be liable for John Helbing's fall.

We can pass over whether Defendant was the correct party to sue.*fn1 After review of Defendant's motion, we agree with Defendant that the hills and ridges doctrine establishes that there can be no liability for John Helbing's injuries. We will therefore grant its motion.

II. Standard of Review

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, the movant is entitled to summary judgment if it "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In pertinent part, parties moving for, or opposing, summary judgment must support their position by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). "'The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'" Colwell v. Rite-Aid Corp., 602 F.3d 495, 501 (3d Cir. 2010)(quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).

III. Background

We take this background from the properly supported factual assertions in the parties' briefs and the evidentiary submissions.*fn2

John Helbing and his wife, Sandra, had been staying at the Wyndham Gettysburg Hotel for a few days, probably starting on January 30, 2008, apparently because Sandra Helbing ("Helbing") was doing some temporary work at a local hospital.

Mrs. Helbing testified at her deposition about weather conditions on relevant days. She did not notice any ice or snow on the hotel property on January 30, although when she returned to the hotel that evening, it was very cold and it was drizzling. (Doc. 28-1, Sandra Helbing Dep., pp. 37-38). On the evening of January 31, she recalls "[th]ey were calling for winter storms after midnight," but the weather for dinner that night "was fine." (Id., p. 39). When they returned to the hotel that night from dinner around 8:00 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., there was no "slipperyness" at the hotel, no ice or snow. (Id., pp. 40, 42).

The next morning, February 1, Mrs. Helbing opened the window curtains in their room, and "it appeared that it was raining because everything was just so shiny. . . . There may have been some flakes of snow . . . but from what we could tell upstairs, it looked almost like it was raining." (Id., p. 44). They were relieved it was only rain. (Id., p. 51).

At around 7:00 a.m., they had a Baltimore TV station on, and the weather forecast for Baltimore was snow, rain and ice. The Helbings left their room, sometime around seven or seven-thirty, and walked out the main entrance to the hotel under a portico. The asphalt on the parking lot looked "shiny . . . looked like it was wet." (Id., pp. 45, 47, 48, 50, 51). They were going directly to their car across the asphalt parking lot to drive Mrs. Helbing to work. (Id., p. 48). As her husband stepped from the brick area (which was also wet, id., p. 52) onto the asphalt at the hotel entrance, he fell on his left side and slid about two feet. (Doc. 18-1, Helbing Dep., pp. 49, 52-53). Mrs. Helbing stepped onto the asphalt to try to help him and began to slide herself. (Id., p. 53). He had to crawl back to the hotel. (Id., p. 50).

Records from the National Weather Service in York, Pennsylvania, indicate that freezing rain began about 4:30 a.m. on February 1, 2008, and basically continued through 8:15 a.m. with some misting during this time as well. The temperature was around freezing. There was a brief time between 7:00 a.m. and 7:15 a.m. when there was just rain and mist. (Doc. 18-2, p.2). Mrs. Helbing testified that at the time her husband fell, it was sleeting, that the entire asphalt area near the portico was covered with ice, a sheet of ice, not just a patch of ice. ...

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