Is There Any Legal Value To Warnings Concerning Cellular Phone Dangers At Gas Stations?

IMG_0418 2After using a gasoline station in McLean, Virginia for years, I noticed for the first time this sign tucked away on the side on station. It is a sign that would seem to ignore reality since drivers routinely use cell phone and electrical devices (such as car radio, tablets, readers, and video players at gasoline stations. In light of such observed and common practice, what legal value does this sign have for the station.

Such signs are routinely posted to create a legal defense by triggering assumption of the risk or claiming that the sign makes accidents less foreseeable. In states that have decreased or eliminated the use of assumption of the risk in light of the rise of comparative negligence principles, such signs are often cited as a basis for the reduction of any award based on plaintiff’s conduct. It can also be cited as fulfilling a duty to warn business invitees of a latent risk.

However, if it is dangerous to use cellphones at gasoline stations, is this enough given the almost universal practice of making calls while pumping gas?

In Casas v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 201 F.3d 435, the Fourth Circuit considered a slip and fall where a warning was given in the form of a sign on the wet floor of the store. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that the court must still determine “whether the warning given was adequate under the circumstances.” This requires a consideration of “the number, location, and adequacy of the warnings given by defendant.” Is one sign sufficient warning? Indeed, is any sign sufficient warning if there is widespread violations of the rule? Clearly, the danger is not high given the extent of violations that can be observed at most stations.

This danger has been downplayed despite occasional stories of fires involving cellphone use.

Mythbusters did this segment on the claimed risk. However, some government offices maintain that there is a danger as with this warning in Canada.

23 thoughts on “Is There Any Legal Value To Warnings Concerning Cellular Phone Dangers At Gas Stations?

  1. I have seen several security camera videos of people using cell phones at gas pumps, and the pump exploding into flames. However, in every one of those I have seen, the customer does something like sit down in the car seat, then get up. That is usually a trigger for a static spark as anyone who has touched a car on a cool dry day can attest.

    Airplane fueling is something I am familiar with. It is mandatory for the fueler to attach a ground lead to the airplane, and the fuel truck be grounded. That is usually with a dangling strip of wire or chain under the truck that touches the ground. The ground lead is a long wire that runs from the truck to the plane and is attached to the plane with an alligator clip. Fuel flowing through a hose and nozzle can create static electricity.

    As for cell phones and other modern gadgets, their risk of creating a hazardous spark is virtually none. They use very little electricity, hardly more than your digital watch. The service station would be on sounder legal ground if they provided ground wires (no pun intended) or some sort of way to ground vehicles. They already require you to sit portable fuel containers on the ground before filling. Filling a gas can in the back of a pickup truck, for example, is asking for trouble.

  2. What you describe is, of course, under these circumstances, not an effective warning viewed from the standpoint of public safety. It doesn’t bring a person from the point of ingrained habit to the different point of new awareness of a danger – this is the issue.

    Viewed from the jury box – after the fact – when the deed is done – “when you can’t undo the harm” – “when they should have known better” – “when the harmed didn’t take personal responsibility” – and “when I wouldn’t have done such a stupid thing” it may be viewed very differently.

  3. I have seen studies that the main cause of gas pump explosions is static electricity from people. The scenario is as follows…person pulls up to pump, gets out and starts the pump pumping, gets back into car because its cold(wet, snowy, windy, boring, etc) to stand by the car, pump stops, person gets out of car and without touching car reaches for the pump handle to extract it from the car when a static discharge between them and the car/ground happens.

    Lesson, Do Not get back into your car when pumping gas. Before reaching for the pump handle (whether you got back in your car or not), touch the car away from the pump handle, continue touching the car with one hand while you grab the pump handle with the other.

  4. OS

    since most autos have plastic door handles inside and out, static discharge is a problem. Paul is right, don’t get back in the car, and always touch the outside of the car at least once with your bare hand. i know it’s a pain when it’s cold but that is when the risk of static discharge is greatest.

    insofar as cell phones, who knows. most people would be better off if they put them down once in a while and paid a little more attention to what’s going on around them.

    we’re not the great multi-taskers we think we are.

  5. The author of the article should go to a different gas station. I don’t like smokers at the pumps. Ya see a lot of that down here in NC.

  6. If you study electronics and radio transmissions, they in fact can not only do things unintended but were the basis of the video depicting Senators who passed the Digital Millennium Act and gave Motorola a monopoly. Digit technology guys is gruesome in what it can actually do to those who don’t know much about electricity, radio or sub-atomic charged particles and high powered magnetics. It’s a shame–the naïve joke about tin foil hats, except, that only makes you an antennae. LOL People need to get educated in high tech or they will be of themselves, victims of others with an agenda. Cell Phones do remember, are not different in transmissions, than ON STAR which allows remote radio to unlock doors and do all kinds of other things to your vehicle’s flash card and computer’s vehicle brain. Wake up America.

  7. However, some government offices maintain that there is a danger as with this warning in Canada.” – JT

    The defense would be a legal fiction. ;)

  8. To answer the question: there is no value to the posted sign because the sign doesn’t tell patrons what the danger is. Is the danger that an electrical spark will blow up the whole gas station? Or, is the danger that a distracted patron will be struck by a vehicle? Or, that fumes from the gas would effect cell phone operation such that government surveillance of your phone call would be impossible? Or, that Buddy, the Class D mechanic, just got out of the mental hospital and still thinks cell phone transmissions are messing up his brain and might get violent? If Buddy takes a tire iron to a customer, I don’t think that sign is going to protect the owner from much of anything. Seriously, patrons might be willing to accept the risk of some dangers but not others.

  9. If static electricity is a problem with your car, remember the rubber tires are insulators. The car is not grounded, but when you touch it, you are the ground, which is why you can get the jolt. Or even strike a spark that might set off an explosion at the pump.

    There is a simple solution. Get a grounding strap, sometimes called a static wick. You may have noticed chains dangling from the frames of big trucks dragging along the ground. Those are cheap, but unless you drive a truck, doubt you want the sound of a chain dragging echoing through your family sedan. Good static wicks are made of rubber or plastic with wires embedded in them. Attach the bracket end to your car, and the rubberized material is heavy enough to drag the ground. As it wears away, fresh wire ends are exposed, so it is always grounded. If you go to the auto parts store and the clerk does not have grey hair, they will probably have no idea what you are asking for. One of the better known brands of static straps at the link.

    http://www.mizter.com/car-antistatic-ground-strap-assembly.htm

  10. From the young people I see hypnotized by their cell phones they would not even realize if they did burst into flaMes. “OMG, hot flashes, just like my mo…m..wait I…AHHHHHH.”

  11. Hey mom and pop gas station owner, I hate to tell ya but an automobile is itself an electric device. It also will send out sparks from the gas engine. So keep your darn pumps in good working condition and don’t let your meat loaf so to speak. Also, where is the windshield cleaning squeegee, the cleaner, the towels, the air for the tires, the clean bathroom, the soda pop machine that doesn’t steal quarters, the cashier that can speak the King’s English?

  12. My half blind guy, for whom I am guide dog, still drives a car once in a while. He also carries his cell phone and he is the last person to drive and yak at the same time. So when the cell phone rings I start barking and don’t let up until he hangs it up or fails to answer the ring due to my admonition.

    Cell phones pose more of a danger as a distraction than they do as a flare gun at a gas pump.

  13. OS: I think instead of a chain you can just drag a braided wire cable attached to the frame under the car or truck, purposely frayed at the road end to make a brush. There would be no (noticeable) noise at all.

  14. Of course, we have all seen by now the guy who lit a cigarette while pumping gas (in Georgia, I think). The fumes ignited seriously burning his wife. At least, he wasn’t using a cell phone.

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