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Brunson v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA et al., Defendants.


          Gene E.K. Pratter United States District Judge

         “The very mission of the summary judgment procedure is to pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 advisory committee's note to 1963 amendment. The Court can think of few cases that present a clearer need for summary judgment than the present one. The plaintiff, Terri Brunson, claims that the United States Postal Service carelessly failed to maintain a mat in the vestibule at the entrance of its post office, which caused her to fall and break her leg. Ms. Brunson makes these allegations despite never seeing a negligently maintained mat, not knowing how she fell, and admitting to her doctors that she tripped on her own accord. Given these facts, no reasonable jury could find that the Postal Service was negligent, and summary judgment is granted in favor of the defendants.


         In April 2016, Ms. Brunson was at a post office in Philadelphia. As she left the post office, she tripped and fell, fracturing her left fibula. After her fall, she filed this action under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the Government, the building owner, and the maintenance companies, alleging that an upturned mat in the building vestibule caused her fall.

         The United States filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss Ms. Brunson's action, claiming that she cannot establish that there was an uneven mat or that (if one existed) it caused her fall and injuries.[1] The Government argues that the evidence shows that Ms. Brunson actually fell because she caught her foot in the door-not due to any carelessness by the defendants.

         Standard of Review

         A court shall grant a motion for summary judgment “if the movant 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). An issue is “genuine” if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the case under governing law. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Under Rule 56, the Court must view the evidence presented on the motion in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. However, “[u]nsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Betts v. New Castle Youth Dev. Ctr., 621 F.3d 249, 252 (3d Cir. 2010).

         The movant bears the initial responsibility for informing the Court of the basis for the motion for summary judgment and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue, the moving party's initial burden can be met simply by “pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 325. After the moving party has met the initial burden, the non-moving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuinely disputed factual issue for trial by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-moving party fails to rebut by making a factual showing “sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.


         The United States is liable “for injury . . . caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government . . . in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). Because Ms. Brunson's injury happened in Pennsylvania, the Court applies Pennsylvania law.

         In Pennsylvania, “[t]he four elements necessary to establish a cause of action in negligence are: a duty or obligation recognized by law; breach of that duty by the defendant; causal connection between the defendant's breach of that duty and the resulting injury; and actual loss or damage suffered by the complainant.” Reilly v. Tiergarten Inc., 633 A.2d 208, 210 (Pa. 1993).

         The elements of damage and duty are not in dispute here. Instead, the dispute centers on breach of duty and causation. First, the parties dispute whether the post office breached its duty by failing to maintain the mat in its vestibule; and second, whether the mat was the cause of Ms. Brunson's fall and injuries. The Court finds that there is no evidence on the record to establish breach of duty, and therefore no evidence to show causation.

         I. ...

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