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Mills v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 20, 2019

NANCY H. MILLS
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

          MEMORANDUM RE DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Baylson, J.

         I. Introduction

         Nancy H. Mills broke her leg on April 15, 2017 after falling in a United States Post Office located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She has since brought a premises liability negligence action against the United States (“the Government”) in which she alleges that her fall was caused by a dangerously-laid-out rug. The Government has moved for summary judgment in its favor on her claim. For the reasons that follow, the Government’s motion is DENIED.

         The parties do not dispute that Mills fell in the Doylestown Post Office on April 19, 2017, or that Mills’s April 19, 2017 fall injured her. They are also in accord as to the basic legal standard to be applied. They agree that Mills was a business invitee of the Doylestown Post Office to whom the Post Office owed a duty of protection from foreseeable harm. Thomas v. Family Dollar Stores, No. 17-cv-4989, 2018 WL 6044931, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2018). They also agree that the Doylestown Post Office breached that duty of care only if a dangerous condition existed on the premises and it:

(a) knew or by the exercise of reasonable care could have discovered (i.e., had actual or constructive notice of) the condition and should have realized that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to its invitees;
(b) should have expected that its invitees will not discover or realize the danger or will fail to protect them against it; and
(c) failed to exercise reasonable care to protect its invitees against the danger.

See Larkin v. Super Fresh Food Markets, Inc., 291 Fed.Appx. 483, 484 (3d Cir. 2008). The parties here dispute whether the Government has shown that it did not breach that duty of care as a matter of law. They also dispute whether any breach actually caused Mills’s injuries.

         In its Memorandum of Law in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment (“Def. SJ Br.,” ECF 15.1), the Government contends that there is no evidence that the rug itself was negligently positioned or laid out on the day in question; that she cannot establish that she actually tripped on the rug; and that she cannot overcome its expert report that the rug comported with pedestrian safety standards.[1] Def. SJ Br. at 1–2.

         In her Response Memorandum (“Pl. Opp. Br.,” ECF 16.2), Mills counters that the Doylestown Post Office staff’s testimony establishes that they were aware that the rugs often did not lie flat and that the Post Office did not take any protective measures despite being aware of this risk.[2] Pl. Opp. Br. at 4–5.

         The Government’s Reply Brief maintains that Mills has not rebutted the Government’s expert report and argues that the Defendant’s argument about protective measures is based on evidence from dissimilar locales. Def. Rep. Br. at 2–3.

         II. Discussion

         a. Breach of the Duty of Care

         The Government argues that, per its expert report, the rugs it uses were plainly safe on the day in question, precluding summary judgment. Def. SJ Br. at 7. The rug’s edge’s thickness around its edge is one-eighth of an inch. Id. Ex. C at 10. Relevant safety standards call for changes in walking surfaces’ vertical elevations to be no more than one-quarter of an inch tall. Id. The expert report further states that, based on photographs taken on April 17, the rug’s “edge laid flat and flush against the floor” near where Mills supposedly fell. Id. at 9. However, the record contains some ambiguity about where and how Mills fell. See id. Ex. A. (“Mills Dep.”) at 18:9-23, 19:15–19 (Mills fell only onto her right knee and did not move after); id. Ex. D (“Paciti Dep.”) at 6:12–13 (custodian found Mills lying on the rug); Pl. Opp. Br. Ex. A (“Brogan Dep.”) 10:13-17, Ex. P-1 (supervisor found Mills sitting on the lobby floor near the rug). It is also difficult to draw indisputable conclusions about the state of the edges of the rug at the time of Mills’s fall based on the photographs the expert reviewed. See Def. SJ Br. Ex. B; Brogan Dep. Exs. P-3, P-4. The rug is charcoal-colored, Def. SJ Br. Ex. C at 10, and the photographs’ quality is poor. The photographs contain several areas of blurring or shadowing along the edges of the rug which could reflect the rug not sitting flush. See Def. SJ Br. Ex. B; Brogan Dep. Exs. P-3, P-4. Although Mills noticed nothing wrong with the rugs between the time she entered the Doylestown Post Office and the time she tripped. See Mills Dep. at 16:9-20. However, the rugs regularly lay amiss. See Mills Dep. at ...


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