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Charlie v. Erie Ins. Exch.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2014


Argued, December 11, 2013

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 246

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Lehigh County, Civil Division, No(s).: 2011-C-3496. Before McGINLEY, J.

Robert M. Smolen, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Dean C. Seman, Philadelphia, for appellees.



Page 247


Appellant, Erie Insurance Exchange, as subrogee of Jeffrey Dorn and Rochelle Dorn, doing business as Egypt Laundromat, appeals from the order entered in the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas granting summary judgment in favor of Appellees, Albert Charlie, doing business as Riley's Restaurant & Pub, and Zachary Neidert. Appellant contends the trial court should have held that Appellees had an affirmative duty to prevent greasy rags in Appellant's laundromat dryer from spontaneously combusting. We hold that Appellant has not met its burden for imposing a duty upon all laundromat customers to prevent laundered rags from spontaneously combusting. Accordingly, we affirm.

We state the facts as set forth by the trial court:

This case is a property damage subrogation action arising out of a fire that occurred on April 4, 2011, at the Egypt Laundromat located at 4755 Main Street, Egypt, Pennsylvania. Riley's Restaurant & Pub (Riley's) is a business located at 4505 Main Street, Egypt, Pennsylvania. During all relevant times, Zachery Neidert (Neidert) was working in the course and scope of his employment as a bartender at Riley's.
Riley's offers a variety of food to its patrons, including: chicken wings, cheesesteaks, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, clams, some entrees, french fries, chicken fingers and jalapeno poppers. The food is prepared in Riley's kitchen which houses two ovens, eight burners, a flat top grill and a deep fryer filled with oil used to cook the french fries, chicken fingers and jalapeno poppers.
Cotton rags are used at Riley's on a daily basis to wipe down, clean and absorb excess food, debris, residue, dirt and oils from areas including the bar top, stools, tables, windowsills, televisions, juke box and video games. Riley's employees would use their common sense to determine when a bar rag was ready to be cleaned, and the rag would be put into some type of laundry bag. Every one to two weeks, the dirty bar rags were taken to Egypt Laundromat, two blocks away from Riley's, where an employee of Riley's would wash and dry them. Neidert was an employee of Riley's for six years as of April 4, 2011. Neidert had noticed on prior occasions at Egypt Laundromat that the rags did not really get cleaned after being washed, that the washing machine did

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not get all the stuff out of the rags. Neidert began using three washers instead of two in an attempt to have the washing machines clean the rags better.
On April 4, 2011, at 6:51 p.m., Neidert arrived at Egypt Laundromat, placed Riley's soiled cotton rags into three washing machines and left. At approximately 9:49 p.m., Neidert returned to Egypt Laundromat and removed the bar rags from the three washing machines. Neidert testified that the bar rags were wet and kind of balled together; he did not pay attention to whether or not they looked clean. Neidert put all three loads of bar rags into a single dryer, inserted nine quarters for a 63 minute drying cycle, started the dryer, and then left the Laundromat. The dryer stopped spinning at 10:50 p.m. At 12:25 a.m., the bar rags began to smolder. At 12:45 a.m., an unidentified laundromat patron opened the door to the subject dryer. Neidert returned to the laundromat at 12:49 a.m., observed flames inside the dryer and unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire. At approximately 12:58 a.m., the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Department personnel arrived at the laundromat and extinguished the fire.

Trial Ct. Op., 5/20/13, at 2-3.

We also reproduce the following exchange from the deposition of Mr. Neidert:

[Appellant's counsel:] Have you ever heard of any phenomenon where laundry can catch on fire if there is too much grease or sediment within the laundry itself?
A. Like spontaneous combustion?
Q. Yes.
A. I've heard of it. I've never heard of it for grease. I've heard of spontaneous combustion where something can just light on fire.
* * *
Q. Have you ever heard of that phenomenon where if there is vegetable oil or something left within the linen, that it can cause fire?
A. I've heard like greasy rags causing fires in, like, people's garages or something. Like oily rags. I always thought that was motor oil or gasoline and stuff like that?

Ex. B to Appellant's Br. in Resp. to Appellees' Mot. for Summ. J. Further, no party disputes that the rags at issue were used to clean up nicotine, spilled drinks, and incidental grease from spilled food. See Appellant's Brief at 7-8; Appellee's Brief at 3-4. We acknowledge, however, that the parties dispute whether the rags were " soaked" in oil, grease, or nicotine and whether one of the parties used laundry detergent or a degreasing solution in the washers.[1]

On November 3, 2011, Appellant filed a complaint raising two counts of negligence against Appellees. Appellees moved for summary judgment on the basis that because spontaneous combustion--by its very nature--is not typically viewed as a reasonably foreseeable risk, the law did not impose an affirmative duty to prevent spontaneous combustion. Accordingly, Appellees asserted they could not be held negligent as a matter of law.

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On May 21, 2013, the court granted Appellees' motion for summary judgment.[2] The trial court applied the five factors set forth in Althaus ex rel. Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 553, 756 A.2d 1166');"> 756 A.2d 1166, 1169 (2000), for establishing the existence of a duty. The court reasoned that Appellees were business invitees, laundering bar rags had social value, spontaneous combustion of washed rags left in a dryer was not a foreseeable risk, and imposition of Appellant's proposed mandates, as set forth below, were unfeasible. Trial Ct. Op. at 6-10. Appellant timely appealed and the court did not order Appellant to comply with Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b).

Appellant raises the following questions:

Did the trial court commit reversible error when it decided as a matter of law that [Appellees], a bar owner and its employee, did not owe a duty of ordinary care to Egypt Laundromat to prevent the bar's oil soaked bar rags from causing a fire in the laundromat?
Did the trial court commit reversible error in the manner in which it analyzed the factors in Althaus [ex rel. Althaus] v. Cohen, 756 A.2d 11[6]6, 11[69], 562 Pa. 547 (Pa. 2000) by concluding, among other things, that the ability to clean bar rags in a public laundromat without regard to the risk of spontaneous combustion is of extreme social importance and that the minimal burden of imposing a duty on a commercial establishment to educate itself regarding the risks of laundering its own bar rags outweighs the important public interest in preventing fires?
Did the trial court commit reversible error when it weighed conflicting evidence and made credibility determinations in favor of . . . Appellees, the moving party, when ...

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