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Potvin v. Speedway, LLC

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 8, 2017

SPEEDWAY LLC, Defendant.


          Judith Gail Dein United States Magistrate Judge


         The plaintiff, Eileen Potvin, has brought this negligence action against Speedway LLC, the operator of a gas station on Andover Street in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Ms. Potvin fell and injured herself when, she believes, the heel of her shoe got caught in a groove, known as a positive limiting barrier (“PLB”), which encircled the gas pump. The PLB is required by Massachusetts law. This matter is before the court on the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 57). Therein, Speedway contends that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because (1) the PLB was not a hazard which required a warning or remedy, (2) even if it was a hazard, Speedway owed no duty to warn of such an open and obvious hazard, and (3) plaintiff failed to establish that Speedway breached its duty of care because her expert's opinion “is mere guesswork that is wholly unsupported by science or data.” (Id.). For the reasons detailed herein, the undisputed facts establish that Speedway is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and the defendant's motion for summary judgment is ALLOWED.


         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise indicated.

         The Accident

         Eileen Potvin alleges that on January 20, 2012, between 2:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., she was injured when she tripped and fell at the Speedway self-service gas station and convenience store located on Andover Street in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. (DF ¶ 1; PF ¶ 1). On the day of the accident, the plaintiff picked up her boyfriend at work, and then stopped at the Speedway to purchase gas. (DF ¶ 2; PF ¶ 2). She pulled up to a gas pump, with the driver's side near the pump, got out of her car and walked toward the front of her car to look for a squeegee to clear her car windshield. (DF ¶ 3; PF ¶ 3). Her boyfriend went inside to pay for the gas, which he intended to pump when he returned. (DF ¶ 4; PF ¶ 3).

         Ms. Potvin was unable to locate a squeegee, so she reversed direction, and while walking backwards toward her car, lost her balance and fell, landing on her right hip. (DF ¶¶ 5-6; PF ¶ 4). Ms. Potvin did not actually see how she fell, but she believes that the side of the heel of her right shoe “got wedged” in a groove in the concrete. (DF ¶¶ 5-8; PF ¶ 4). The groove is known as a positive limiting barrier (“PLB”) and is required by Massachusetts law. (DF ¶ 9; PF ¶ 6).

         Positive Limiting Barriers

         At the time of the accident, 527 CMR § 5.08(5) authorized the Department of Fire Services (“DFS” or “Fire Department”) to approve plans for self-service gas stations in Massachusetts. (DF ¶ 10; PF ¶ 7).[2] The Fire Department required that PLBs be installed at all self-service gas stations in the Commonwealth prior to those gas stations being approved for operation. (DF ¶ 11; PF ¶ 8). PLBs are grooves in the concrete pad surrounding the dispensing island and the dispensers. (DF ¶ 12; PF ¶ 9). They are designed to contain a five gallon spill of flammable liquids within the area of the outer groove of the PLB, as that is the limit of the area protected by the fire suppression system. (DF ¶ 13; PF ¶ 9). According to DFS guidelines, there must be five concentric grooves surrounding the gasoline pumps, and the grooves must be cut to a minimum of three quarters of an inch in width, and three quarters of an inch in depth. (DF ¶ 14; PF ¶ 10; Def. Ex. B (Beaudin Dep.) at 39-40).[3] The PLBs at Speedway measured seven-eighths of an inch wide, according to the plaintiff's expert. (PF ¶ 17). The guidelines do not prohibit the painting of the PLBs a different color. (Id. ¶ 11). While certain signs are required by Department of Fire Services' guidelines, no signs warning of the existence of PLBs are either required, or prohibited, by the guidelines. (See Def. Ex. B (Beaudin Dep.) at Ex. 1, ¶¶ 24-26; PF ¶ 12; DF ¶ 20).

         The PLB requirement was in effect when the prior owner of the property at issue in this litigation renovated the site in 1998. (DF ¶ 16). The Fire Department had approved the design of the PLBs before the gas station opened, and its approval remained in effect after the property was transferred to Speedway. (Id. ¶¶ 17-19).

         Reading the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, in the two years prior to Ms. Potvin's fall, there were two incidents reported to Speedway in all of Massachusetts involving people tripping or falling in the area of “grooves” near the gas pumps and/or the PLBs.[4] (See Pl. Ex. 2 (Def. Second Suppl. Resp. to Pl. Req. for Prod. of Docs.) at Suppl. Resp. 5B). On September 13, 2010, a woman at a Saugus gas station reported having her heel caught in a cement groove when she was getting into a vehicle on the passenger side at a gas pump. (Id. at “Customer Statement of Incident”). On December 6, 2010, a woman at a gas station in Worcester reported that she had “tripped on the grooves by pump 3.” (Id. at “Customer Information & Statement”). According to the representative of the Fire Department who was deposed in this case, the Fire Department had not had any complaints that the PLBs were tripping hazards. (Def. Ex. B (Beaudin Dep.) at 37).

         Plaintiff's Expert

         The plaintiff has designated Steven Frederickson as her expert. He is a licensed civil engineer who is employed by the City of Beverly as a director of municipal inspections, and is also self-employed as an engineering consultant. (PF ¶¶ 13-14). Mr. Frederickson has had no experience with PLBs or, apparently, self-service gas stations, but extrapolated from regulations concerning other public spaces to evaluate the conditions at issue in this litigation. (See DF ¶ 36). Mr. Frederickson concluded that optimally the grooves should have been 1/2" wide but the regulations required that they be 3/4" wide. He found that the grooves were, in fact, 7/8” - 1” wide, and opined that as a result additional signage and/or visual warnings should have been provided. (See Pl. Ex. 6 (Frederickson Report) at 9). The plaintiff does not base her negligence claim on the width of the grooves in and of themselves. Rather, she argues, in light of the “exceeded width of the grooves, signage and/or a visual warning, such as a painted surface, should have been provided to pedestrians.” (Pl. Mem. at 4). As detailed below, Mr. Frederickson's opinion does not defeat the motion for summary judgment since there was no duty to warn against the obvious and open condition as a matter of law.

         Mr. Frederickson opined that pursuant to the definitions in the Massachusetts Building Code, the area of the PLBs qualifies as an “exit discharge” since it is “part of the means of egress from the building, ” and that as an “exit discharge” the Building Code requires that “it must be maintained.” (See DF ¶ 21; Pl. Ex. 6 at 3).[5] He then concluded that, since the Building Code β€œis silent on what constitutes maintenance[, ]” he would look to the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) Standard Practice of Safe Walking Surfaces (ASTM F-1637), because it is β€œ[t]he most widely recognized standard for safe walking surfaces[.]” (Pl. Ex. 6 at 3). However, Mr. Frederickson admits that the ...

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