According to the United States Census bureau, today there are more than 160,000 gas stations in the United States. Ninety-two percent of these stations also operate as convenience stores, where customers can buy everything from soup to nuts – literally. With thousands of people coming and going each day, it’s inevitable some gas station accidents will occur.
A number of factors can cause injuries at gas stations. The most common are:
- Slip and falls caused by cracked or uneven pavement, pooled gasoline and oil, accumulated untreated ice and snow, poor water runoff, and debris left in aisles inside the store portion of the station. Poorly maintained restrooms often have spilled water, soap, and other fluids left on the floor.
- Gasoline and diesel burns result from pump handle leakage, hose leakage, and gas sprays from faulty shutoff valves.
- Vapor inhalation scorching occurs in improperly ventilated pumping areas or from vehicle carbon monoxide that drifts from repair bays where engines are running.
- Faulty nozzle triggers can cause lacerations when the trigger mechanism on the pump handle becomes sharp or abrasive from wear, when the trigger mechanism malfunctions and fingers become pinched, or when the hose twists and snaps the pump handle back into the face or torso.
- Assaults occur when gas station owners fail to provide sufficient on-premises security, when they allow loitering, and when employees become abusive.
- Vehicle collisions occur when required barriers meant to separate vehicles and gas pumps are in disrepair or missing.
- Fires can erupt when customers carelessly toss cigarettes onto the pavement, the station has exposed and insulated wiring, or there’s static electricity. Contrary to some claims, there’s no data confirming cell phones cause gas station fires.
The law and gas station liability…
Although there are literally hundreds of state and federal laws regulating gas station operating standards, when it comes to customer injuries it’s usually up to the customer to prove the gas station was responsible, or liable. Some liability issues are obvious, and as a result, insurance companies can’t contest them.
Example: Gasoline Burns
In Florida, a woman pulled up to a gasoline pump at a discount quick-stop gasoline/convenience station. As she pumped gas into her car, the gas nozzle broke away from the hose, spraying gasoline which resulted in burns over 80 percent of her body. In addition, the vapors permanently scorched the inside of her lungs. The gas station’s surveillance camera caught the entire incident.
Fortunately, the woman’s husband retained an attorney who got a restraining order ordering the gas station not to erase the video. In this case, liability was clear. The woman settled her insurance claim against the gas station for $3.8 million. She subsequently filed another claim against the manufacturer of the gas nozzle.
Unfortunately, liability in most gas station accidents isn’t as obvious as the above example. In these cases, it’s up to the injured person to prove the gas station owner’s negligence caused her injuries. Here’s how it works…
Negligence, Duty of Care and Foreseeability
Common law says gas station owners and operators have a very high legal obligation, or duty of care, to protect their customers from undue harm. (Common law is a combination of legal precedents, statutes, and relevant court rulings.) This doesn’t mean gas station owners are bound by law to protect customers from every harm. It means from the type of harm a well-trained gas station owner should know about in his type of business, a foreseeable harm.
For example, an owner would know older cars tend to leak oil on the ground while at the pumps. Because the station owner knows there will be a hundred or more cars each day fueling up, slippery oil around the pumping areas may occur. That’s a foreseeable harm, which could result in a customer slipping and falling.
On the other hand, if a delivery truck pulls up to make a delivery and plows into the gas station’s pumps and ignites them, that’s probably not a foreseeable harm.
When a foreseeable harm exists and a gas station owner fails to eliminate that harm, which ultimately results in a customer’s injuries, the gas station owner has violated (breached) his legal duty of care. Because he didn’t eliminate the foreseeable harm by cleaning up the oil or putting barriers around it, he was negligent.
Great. You passed Law School Negligence 101. Well, almost. Just because you say the gas station owner breached his duty of care doesn’t mean it’s so. You have to prove it.
The same common law that says the gas station owner has a legal duty to protect you from undue harm also says you must prove the harm was not only foreseeable, but also was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your injuries.
Technically, the gas station owner doesn’t have to do anything. It’s up to you to prove foreseeability, negligence, direct and proximate cause, and damages. That’s not always an easy task.
Well, how do the lawyers do it?
They start with evidence. Evidence is the key to victory in any personal injury insurance claim. Here’s some of the most effective evidence you can get after an accident:
Speak with the manager
If you’re hurt, immediately seek out the owner or manager. If unavailable, an employee will do. Report exactly what happened and how you were injured. For example, after washing your hands in the restroom, you pulled down on the towel dispenser. It jammed, and as you pulled it again, you sliced your hand on the jagged edge of the metal intended to separate the towels. Show the manager exactly where it happened. Ask for medical help. You may need stitches or a tetanus shot.
Gas station incident report
These days multi-million dollar conglomerates own most gas stations. They have in-place procedures for just about everything, including incident reports for gas station accidents. Insist the manager fill out a report. Although he doesn’t have to do what you say, he’ll have to fill one out nonetheless. Be sure you give him your contact information. Ask him to write down exactly what he saw and not just his opinion. He’ll send a copy to the gas station’s insurance company.
If you think your injuries are serious enough to require paramedics, don’t be shy. Ask the manager to call 911. For example, if you slipped and fell on some boxes left in an aisle inside the convenience store and now your leg hurts a lot, you may have fractured a bone. The worst thing you can do is pay for your soda and limp back to your car. Remember, it’s not your fault and gas stations are heavily insured.
When the paramedics arrive they’ll treat you at the scene, and if necessary take you to the hospital. They will document all of this in their patient treatment report. Because you’re the patient, you can get a copy of the report. It’s vital to your insurance claim. Be careful though. If it turns out you weren’t injured enough to require the paramedics and you’re unsuccessful in your insurance claim, you may be stuck having to pay the cost.
Witnesses can provide very strong evidence in your claim. While family and friends are good witnesses, independent eyewitnesses, or Good Samaritans, are much better. They have no stake in the outcome. As a result the insurance company gives their version of what happened greater credibility.
You may have to move quickly, most people who stop at gas stations are there to fill up, maybe grab a cup of coffee and be on their way. If you can hold an independent witnesses’ attention long enough, ask for her name and contact information. Grab a piece of paper and ask her to write down what she saw. Have her sign and date it. It doesn’t have to be notarized or sworn to.
Your cell phone
Cell phones today have cameras with picture and video capability. Take as many photos and videos as possible. Make sure you have the date and time function turned on. If your injury prevents you from photographing the scene, ask a friend, family member, witness, or even a friendly employee to assist you. Remember, once the incident is reported, it’s likely the problem will get fixed the next day. Once that happens, it’s more difficult to prove what caused your injury.
Look for surveillance cameras. You can be sure there are several. Ask the manager whether one of the cameras videoed the area where you were injured. Although the manager may not let you see the video, its mere existence can be about the best evidence there is. Cameras don’t lie.
You can be confident the gas station’s insurance company will look at the video. If you have serious injuries, your attorney can prevent the station from erasing the portion showing where and the accident happened.
Medical records, bills, receipts, and lost wages
Once you’ve established negligence, the next step is to give the insurance company evidence of your damages. Be sure to request copies of your treatment records, medical and chiropractic bills, receipts for medicines, and proof of other related out-of-pocket expenses. If you had to miss work while receiving treatment, ask your employer to give you a breakdown of your lost wages. Make sure it’s on company letterhead.
If your injuries are soft tissue like cuts, bruises, or sprains, you can probably handle your own claim. You can contact the gas station’s insurance company and file a claim, then negotiate your settlement with the claims adjuster.
If your injuries are the more serious hard injuries like burns, vapor inhalation, broken bones, or head injuries, you must see an attorney . There’s just too much at stake with serious injuries from gas station accidents. Your attorney can subpoena the station’s incident report and a copy of the videotape. She can look at company records to see if this has happened before. This is especially important if the gas station tries to claim the accident was unforeseeable.
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Visitor Questions on Gas Station Accident Claims
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