As a Personal Injury lawyer, I get a lot of calls from people in the wintertime who have questions about their legal rights after falling on snow or ice. I also get questions from property owners about how they can avoid legal liability. Whether a viable legal claim exists after a slip and fall on snow and ice depends on the circumstances and a rule unique to Pennsylvania called “The Hills and Ridges Rule.” It also depends on whether there are any defenses that can be asserted by the property owner, including Assumption of the Risk or Comparative Negligence.
The Hills and Ridges Rule
Under Pennsylvania slip and fall law, a property owner is obligated to use reasonable care to make its property safe for visitors. When it snows or ice develops due to a storm, the property owner must make reasonable efforts to clear the property and make parking lots and sidewalks where visitors are expected to walk reasonably safe. If the property owner makes a reasonable effort, then it is usually protected from liability.
However, if the property owner does not make a reasonable effort and allows Hills and Ridges to form on the walking surfaces because of a delay in clearing snow or ice and someone falls and gets hurt, then the property owner can be held liable.
The Hills and Ridges Rule provides some protection to property owners by recognizing that it is not possible for property owners to keep their property safe at all times, especially during and immediately after snow or ice storms. So, the Rule gives them protection if they make reasonable clean-up efforts. However, if the property owner ignores its duties and allows the property to remain unsafe for an unreasonable amount of time, then it can be held liable for any injury that results.
Limitations of the Hills and Ridges Rule
The Hills and Ridges Rule applies only to falls resulting from naturally falling precipitation. It does not apply to slippery conditions resulting from artificial conditions, like melting and refreezing liquid from snow piles or defectively designed gutters or downspouts.
For example, I recently had a case where my client fell on an icy sidewalk at an apartment complex and the ice originated from snowmelt from a roof that was piped onto the sidewalk from a dangerously designed gutter and downspout system. In that case, we were able to argue that The Hills and Ridges Rule did not apply because the ice was created by an artificial condition, namely, the defective downspout that directed water onto the sidewalk where it refroze.
Defenses to Slip and Fall Cases
Even though someone slips and falls on Hills and Ridges after a snow storm or on an artificial condition like ice from water melting from an artificial condition like a snow pile in a parking lot, that does not mean that the property owner is automatically liable. Instead, the property owner can still assert defenses, like Assumption of the Risk or Comparative Negligence.
Assumption of the Risk
Assumption of the Risk is a defense that can be asserted if the injured person saw that there was a dangerous condition and yet voluntarily chose to confront the risk anyway. In a slip and fall on ice case, Assumption of the Risk can be argued if the injured person admits that he or she saw the ice, knew that it could be dangerous to walk on, could have chosen another route, and yet voluntarily chose to walk on the ice. If proven, Assumption of the Risk is an absolute defense which eliminates any liability of the property owner.
Comparative Negligence is a little different from Assumption of the Risk and is not an absolute defense to liability. Comparative Negligence is a defense that claims that the injured person was careless by failing to spot the dangerous condition or failing to walk carefully and avoid falling. The property owner can allege this defense in any slip and fall case.
If the slip and fall case were to go to trial, then the jury would have to decide the issue of whether the injured person was negligent and, if so, how negligent in comparison to any negligence of the property owner. If the injured person was determined to be more than 50% negligent, then the injured person could not recover any compensation from the property owner. If the injured person was determined to be 50% negligent or less, then the injured person could recover compensation. However, compensation would be reduced by the percentage of responsibility of the injured person. So, if the jury determined that both the injured person and the property owner were negligent, with the property owner 70% and the injured person 30%, then the compensation award to the injured person would be reduced by 30% to account for his or her fault in causing the fall.
Tips for Avoiding Slip and Fall Claims
• Plan for bad weather in advance by making sure that you have snow plow and shoveling services lined up or plenty of labor, shovels and salt on hand.
• Hire reputable snow plow and shoveling services and insist on proof of insurance.
• Have the contract with your snow plow company state that it must carry at least $1M of liability insurance and must defend and indemnify you from any slip and fall claims.
• Make sure that you have adequate liability insurance limits in the event of an injury (at least $1M).
• Shovel and salt promptly after a storm.
• Be careful where you pile snow because it will melt, run downhill and refreeze.
• Watch where your gutters and downspouts discharge water because snow melting from your roof will run out of your downspouts and refreeze.
• Salt patches of melted and refrozen snow and ice.
• Sweep away excess salt when your parking lot and sidewalks dry out because excess salt can also be a slip and fall hazard.
Tim Rayne is a partner in the full-service law firm of MacElree Harvey, Ltd. which has over 35 attorneys in offices located in Bala Cynwyd, Doylestown, Kennett Square and West Chester, PA and Centreville, DE. Tim focuses his law practice in Personal Injury and Civil Litigation law, primarily helping people who have been injured in accidents deal with insurance companies. Tim can be reached at 610.840.0124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more News and Information on Personal Injury law, check out Tim’s website at www.macelree.com/timrayne.