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Sprinkle v. Amz Manufacturing Corp.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 29, 2013




Presently before the court is a motion (Doc. 27) for summary judgment of defendants AMZ Manufacturing Corporation ("AMZ"), EPY Industries, Inc. ("EPY"), Boxwood Manufacturing Corp. ("Boxwood"), and St. Paul Street Associates, Inc. ("St. Paul Associates") (collectively "defendants") against plaintiff Louis Sprinkle ("Sprinkle"). The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

The present case arises out of a slip and fall suffered by plaintiff Louis Sprinkle at the defendants' facility in York, Pennsylvania. Sprinkle, a South Carolina truck driver, was making a scheduled delivery to defendants on January 28, 2011 when he fell, allegedly as a result of slippery conditions brought on by recent winter weather. (See generally Doc. 1).

Sprinkle arrived at the York facility at approximately 6:30 a.m. on the morning of his fall. (Deposition of Louis Sprinkle, Doc. 24, Ex. 1 at 16:21-24). It was cold and snowing. (Id. at 19:09-11, 70:01-05, 70:19-20). Sprinkle reported snow covering the defendants' parking lot and adjacent loading dock area, but he could not tell how much snow had accumulated. (Id. at 74:01-06, 76:15-21, 81:07-14). After moving his truck to the loading dock, Sprinkle went inside the defendants' facility while defendants' employee, Efrain Morales, unloaded its contents. Sprinkle returned to his truck approximately ten minutes later, (id. at 25:19-23), and attempted to depart the facility. He promptly realized that his truck was stuck. (Id. at 26:03-09). Sprinkle walked back into defendants' facility to seek help from Mr. Morales and another employee, Bernadette Miller. (Id. at 26:11-15). He grabbed a plastic shovel to help him chip away the ice and returned to his truck. (Id. at 26:20-25). By this time, Sprinkle had traveled approximately the same route between his truck and the facility four times, during which he neither saw nor felt ice in his path. (Id. at 36:04-25, 37:01-15, 40:22-25, 41:01-22).

Morales and Miller followed Sprinkle out of the facility after he reported that his truck was stuck. Morales described the loading dock area as having "a little bit of ice." (Deposition of Efrain Morales, Doc. 29, Ex. 3 at 13:08-18). Miller also noticed ice in the area. (Deposition of Bernadette Miller, Doc. 29, Ex. 2 at 20: 17-19). Following Sprinkle, Morales and Miller began to salt the loading dock area. (Id. at 17:22-24, 20:01-16). Miller asserts that she warned Sprinkle to wait until she was able to spread more salt, (Doc. 29, Ex. 2 at 56:02-08); apparently, neither Morales nor Sprinkle heard the warning, (Doc. 24, Ex. 1 at 30:17-22; Doc. 29, Ex. 3 at 28:05-09). As they made their way to the truck, Sprinkle attempted to chip ice away from the tires, (Doc. 24, Ex. 1 at 26:20-25, 27:01, 27:10-16, 28:01-04, 43:04-14), but he found the shovel ineffective. As he moved to make way for Morales and Miller, Sprinkle slipped and fell. (Id. at 43:11-24). Accounts vary as to the precise location where Sprinkle fell, though parties agree that it was within several steps of the rear wheels of the truck. (Id. at 25:18-20, 32:23-24; Doc. 29, Ex. 2 at 23:12-19, 23:25, 24:01-04). Sprinkle reports that he did not see or feel ice in the area until he slipped. (Doc. 24, Ex. 1 at 71:17-20).

As a result of the fall, Sprinkle suffered multiple injuries, alleged to include a bimalleolar fracture of the right ankle requiring surgical repair, as well as permanent scarring, loss of range of motion and general interference with plaintiff's daily activities. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 15). He now seeks to recover for defendants' alleged negligence in maintaining the safety of their loading dock and parking lot.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate only when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, " and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The burden of proof is upon the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, " in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon , 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. V. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 , 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). Only if this threshold is met may yhe cause of action proceed. Pappas , 331 F.Supp.2d at 315. Accordingly, the court will view the facts "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Morton Intern., Inc. v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. , 343 F.3d 669, 679-80 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal quotation and citation omitted).

III. Discussion

Defendants move for summary judgment on several grounds. First, they argue that the Pennsylvania "hills and ridges doctrine" shields them from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from ice or snow. Second, they contend that even if that doctrine does not preclude liability in this case, Mr. Sprinkle assumed the risk of slipping and falling by repeatedly traversing an area he knew to contain slick conditions. Finally, defendants assert that Mr. Sprinkle owed a duty to himself to look where he was going, which he breached by failing to take proper precautions against slipping and falling. The court will address these arguments seriatim .

A. The Hills and Ridges Doctrine

Pennsylvania law does not impose an absolute duty on property owners to keep their premises completely free of snow and ice at all times. Rinaldi v. Levine , 176 A.2d 623, 625 (Pa. 1962); see also Beck v. Holly Tree Homeowners Assn. , 689 F.Supp.2d 756, 762 (E.D. Pa. 2010); Mack v. AAA Mid-Atlantic, Inc. , 522 F.Supp.2d 539, 546 (E.D. Pa. 2007). The well-entrenched hills and ridges doctrine "protects an owner or occupier of land from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from ice and snow where the owner has not permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations." Helbing v. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, LLC, No. 10-1117, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13502, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 11, 2011) (quoting Morin v. Traveler's Rest Motel, Inc. , 704 A.2d 1085, 1087 (Pa. Super. 1997)). In order to recover for a fall on an ice - or snow-covered surface, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that snow or ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling thereon; (2) that the property owner had notice, either actual or constructive, of the existence of such conditions; and (3) that it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice that caused the plaintiff to fall. Rinaldi, 176 A.2d at 78-79. This doctrine applies with equal force to both public and private spaces, see Wentz v. Pennswood Apartments , 518 A.2d 314, 316 (Pa. 1991), and has been applied to business invitees, Wilson v. Howard Johnson Restuarant , 219 A.2d 676 (Pa. 1966).

In the matter sub judice , defendants argue that Sprinkle has failed to provide evidence (1) that snow or ice had accumulated in the requisite ridges or elevations; (2) that defendants had actual or constructive notice of such accumulations; and (3) that the accumulations of snow and ice caused Sprinkle to fall. (Doc. 27 at ¶¶ 5-6). Sprinkle counters that the hills and ridges doctrine is inapplicable to the current case as the accumulations of snow and ice that allegedly caused Sprinkle to slip were not "natural accumulations, " but rather were the result of defendant's plowing or snow removal. (Doc. 32 at 4). ...

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