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Monday, October 14, 2019

Del. SC refuses to twist established law on slip-and-falls during storms

By Elizabeth Alt | Jan 25, 2018

WILMINGTON, Del. (Legal Newsline) – The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed a Superior Court decision on Jan. 8 that a gas station owned by Speedway LLC is not liable for a customer’s injuries that he sustained falling on ice while getting gas on its premises during an ice storm.

Both courts applied the continuing storm doctrine, saying that “the continuing storm doctrine should continue to be recognized” and that Speedway was not negligible in waiting until the ice storm had passed to clear ice from the grounds.

On the panel for the Supreme Court were Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. and justices Karen L. Valihura, Collins J. Seitz Jr, Gary F. Traynor and James T. Vaughn, with Vaughn writing the opinion.

According to the ruling, Michael Laine filed suit for negligence against Speedway after he slipped on ice at a Speedway gas station while getting out of his vehicle to fuel up on Jan. 10, 2014, about an hour after Speedway opened. 

Laine, who drove a shuttle for the Modern Maturity Center, alleged that the roads were wet on his drive to Speedway, and weather reports confirmed that freezing rain continued to fall during the day starting around 6 a.m.

Laine claimed that Speedway failed to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to remove ice at the pump where he fell, failed to inspect the premises and failed to warn him of the hazardous conditions that existed, resulting in injuries that allegedly have left him unable to work since the accident.

Speedway filed a motion in response for summary judgment, stating that the rules of the continuing storm doctrine allow for it to wait until the freezing rain ended and for a reasonable time after it ended before removing the ice from its premises. 

The Superior Court granted summary judgment to Speedway, finding that the continuing storm doctrine was a reasonable defense.

Laine appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision to follow the storm doctrine. 

Vaughn noted that the continuing storm doctrine has been applied consistently in the Superior Court since first recognized in the 1962 case Young v. Saroukos, “The continuing storm doctrine has been recognized in many jurisdictions," the ruling says.

Laine argued in his appeal that the storm doctrine shouldn’t apply to businesses that decide to remain open during a storm because of advancements since the Supreme Court’s decision in Young, saying “commercial and residential property owners contract with companies that have highly mechanized snow and ice removal equipment,” and stating that these companies “provide their services based on the weather, so that our ability to attend work, school, appointments, and recreational functions is rarely delayed.”

Laine also claimed that if the court continues to apply the continuing storm doctrine in anything but extreme circumstances, business owners would neglect keeping their grounds safe if they knew that weather-related incidents on their premises would be covered by the doctrine and any injured plaintiffs couldn’t win a case. 

Rebuffing Laine’s argument, Vaughn quoted from a 1999 case discussing slips and falls in a parking lot: “It is patently unfair to make a landowner absolutely liable for every slip-and-fall accident on snow in a lot.”

Vaughn stated that there was not any evidence that Speedway could have effectively removed the ice from around its gasoline pumps during the ice storm, and that the continuing storm doctrine rationale is still compelling.

“This court needs reliable evidence that the existing rule does not strike the optimal balance for all Delawareans affected by the reality that bad weather happens,” Vaughn wrote.

Affirming the lower court decision, Vaughn also addressed the fact that the storm doctrine is in place to keep business safe from inclement weather as well as lawsuits. 

“The continuing storm doctrine has been thought to address these concerns by alleviating the concern that the workers of businesses would be forced to engage in clean up at the worst periods of storms and by alleviating the concerns of business owners that if they stay open during a storm they will expose themselves to the expense of tort suits over falls that are a natural risk in any storm situation involving icy or snowy conditions,” he wrote.

Concluding that the Superior Court did not err in its application of the continuing storm doctrine, and rejecting Laine’s claim that the doctrine shouldn’t be applied, Vaughn stated, “We are reluctant to forsake the continuing storm doctrine, especially when another factor is considered. In active storm situations, customers are expected to be aware themselves of the risks of falling and to take care to protect themselves…sad as the plaintiff’s injuries were, the reality is that there is no foolproof way to avoid the risk of slipping on ice. Some injuries are not the legal fault of anyone, they just are the result of the reality that nothing in life is entirely safe, and surely not walking on ice or snow.”

Speedway LLC is represented by Jessica L. Tyler and Sarah B. Cole of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Wilmington, Delaware.

Michael Laine is represented by Nicholas H. Rodriguez of Schmittinger & Rodriguez PA, Dover, Delaware.

Supreme Court of Delaware case number 149, 2017

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