Let it Snow, Let it Snow

By: Martin J. Healy Jr. and Kevin T. Veugeler

This year we have had an unusually large amount of snow fall. To some, especially skiers and those who enjoy outdoor activities, it can be beautiful. To others who have to shovel their walkways and driveways, it can be a real burden. But to all, with an accumulation of snow, there can be a risk of injury as a pedestrian and a risk of liability as an owner or occupier of land. At this time of the year, people should be aware of their rights and responsibilities as it relates to snow falls. These include the right to make a claim if injured as a result of a fall on ice or snow, and include the responsibility of the owners of land to keep the premises reasonably safe.

"NATURAL ACCUMULATION" AND THE LAW CONCERNING ICE AND SNOW

While, as a general rule, property owners have a responsibility to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition, property owners are not responsible for the "natural accumulation" of snow or ice on their property. This also applies if clearing off the snow exposes a natural accumulation of ice beneath the snow. The concept of "natural accumulation" would include ruts or uneven surfaces made by pedestrians and vehicles which result from a thawing and refreezing on a properly maintained surface.

As to business property owners, they have no responsibility to remove water or snow tracked in by customers or even to provide a mat or rug to wipe their feet. And, unless it is an unnatural accumulation, there is no duty to remove water accumulated around a rug or mat.

MUNICIPAL ORDINANCES REQUIRING THE REMOVAL OF SNOW

Under a City of Chicago Ordinance, there is technically a requirement for any owner, renter, or any other person responsible for any building in the City to remove the snow and ice from the sidewalk in front of the building.

While these municipal ordinances require property owners to remove snow, they are, generally speaking, for the benefit of the municipality. They usually do not establish a separate duty on the part of the land owner for injuries from falls.

CLAIMS FOR INJURIES FROM FALLS ON THE ICE AND SNOW

Claims for injuries from falls on snowy and icy walkways or parking lots are often based on an "unnatural accumulation" or negligent maintenance or design of the walkway or parking lot. In the past, there was a recovery because a slopping sidewalk created an unnatural accumulation of ice and snow resulting in a fall. Another recovery for an injury was made because an improper design of a entry way resulted in an unnatural accumulation. Liability has resulted from leaking gutters or downspouts forming ice on a stairway or a sump pump discharge forming ice on a sidewalk. Liability may also result from a negligent removal of ice and snow if it creates an unnatural accumulation. However, to encourage owners to remove ice and snow from sidewalks, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Snow and Ice Removal Act. The Act provides that residential property owners removing ice or snow abutting their property will not be liable for injuries unless their acts are wilful and wanton. As can be seen, the facts of each individual case will determine the ultimate outcome.

Generally speaking, to begin to establish a claim, first, the claimant must be able to show there was an unnatural accumulation of snow which presented an unreasonable risk of harm to persons on the property. Secondly, the claimant must show that the owner knew or should have known about the condition and the risk. Thirdly, the claimant must show that the owner would not reasonably expect persons to discover or realize the danger.

This general discussion of rights and responsibilities relating to snow and ice should not be considered a substitute for individual legal advice from a personal injury lawyer based on the facts of a particular case.

The law has established protections for owners and occupiers of land for claims based on nature accumulations of snow and ice. However, as discussed, there are exceptions to these rules. The hope is that everyone can enjoy the snow and outdoors without any serious injuries. And keep in mind: Spring is only a few months away.

If you have any pressing legal questions or concerns please contact the Healy Scanlon Law Firm today.