The answer to this question depends on the state of the property and possibly even the city or county in which the property sits. In some states, the owners, occupants, and property managers responsible for maintaining a residential property are legally liable for slip and fall accidents on their property.
But that is not the case everywhere, and the issue of liability is not always straightforward when snow and ice are factors.
What Is the Duty of Care of Property Owners?
Residential property owners generally have a legal duty of care, or obligation, to keep their property safe and free of hazards. This duty would include keeping walkways, driveways, parking areas, and other outdoor areas clear of ice and snow.
An additional hazard arises when slush is tracked inside commercial buildings, creating slick wet floors with a risk of slipping and falling. So, commercial building owners need to monitor interior floors and ensure they take steps to prevent the development of slip and fall hazards and out-of-doors. Appropriate mats and wet floor signs should be positioned where water has accumulated.
Accumulated ice or snow outside clearly presents a hazard. Black ice is especially dangerous because it is not visible. When owners do not remove dangerous conditions that exist on their property, they may be liable to pay compensatory damages to someone who slips, falls, and is injured on their property.
The kinds of property owners who have this general duty of care are the following:
- Commercial businesses, such as retail stores, hotels, theaters, and grocery stores;
- Residential properties include privately owned homes and also residential units included in homeowners’ associations, e.g., condominiums, duplexes, and townhomes;
- Government properties are maintained by federal, state, or local governments and include government office buildings and sometimes residential properties, such as public housing complexes.
A residential property owner’s legal duty of care extends to two specific categories of people who might be present on a parcel of property, i.e., invitees and licensees.
People who benefit the property owner when they enter the owner’s property are invitees. So contractors of various kinds, U.S.P.S. employees, and delivery personnel are examples of invitees. Other people who are not primarily social guests are invitees. They benefit the owner when they are present on the owner’s property.
People who visit a property for social reasons as guests of the owner are licensees under the law of premises liability. For example, neighbors, the friends of the owner’s children, and social guests are licensees.
It is important to note that people present on a parcel of property with no legitimate reason to be there, e.g., trespassers or criminals, usually cannot expect compensation if they are injured while present on someone’s residential property without permission.
How Does Ice or Snow Affect a “Slip and Fall” Case?
Generally, when a personal injury lawsuit involves snow or ice, the injured person must show that the owner responsible for the property on which they fell did not take reasonable steps to make their property safe. Furthermore, the injured person must show they exercised reasonable care for their own safety at the time of the fall and did not assume the known risks of being on the property.
This is not the case in Illinois, however. In 2005, Illinois adopted the Illinois Natural Accumulation Rule and the Snow and Ice Renewal Act of 2005. This law provides that property owners and anyone required to manage property generally cannot be held liable if a person slips and falls on snow or ice if the snow and ice is a natural accumulation caused by the weather.
In short, if it snows and a residential property owner does nothing in response, i.e., does not shovel, salt, or otherwise clear away the snow and ice from surfaces where people walk, then it can be difficult to bring a claim against them in Illinois for injuries suffered in a slip and fall.
The rule is the same in other states as well. The “natural accumulation” rule applies, relieving a property owner of liability for injuries caused by any natural accumulation of snow and ice in most cases. A property owner might well not be liable for the injuries a person suffers from slipping and falling if the following is true:
- The property owner does not interfere with or change a natural accumulation of snow and ice, and
- No abnormal danger exists.
Of course, this rule is far from clear. It is not evident what would or would not constitute an abnormal danger. Slick, frozen patches of ice on a sidewalk can come into existence naturally, and they present a danger that is arguably not abnormal but quite typical under certain conditions. However, the fact remains that it may be difficult to hold the property owner liable in states that follow this rule.
What Factors Other than the Actions of the Parties Involved Are Relevant?
Courts also look at several significant factors other than the parties’ actions to determine whether the responsible person is liable for the slip and fall injuries. These include the following:
- Whether the snow or ice was a natural or artificial accumulation;
- Whether the person responsible for the property knew that there was a dangerous amount of snow or ice present that was likely to cause injury;
- Where the injury occurred, e.g., whether it was on a sidewalk that is often used by pedestrians or on a deserted part of a property where pedestrians rarely go;
- Where the snow or ice accumulated;
- Whether the injured party was aware of the hazard or should have been aware of it.
Another complication may be introduced when a local law or ordinance requires property owners to shovel snow off the sidewalks in front of their homes. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a property owner must remove the snow on the public sidewalk in front of their home within 24 hours of the end of a snowstorm. This type of municipal ordinance is common in the U.S.
Thus, a person who slips and falls on a public sidewalk after 24 hours have passed since the end of a snowstorm might be able to recover damages from the homeowner. The person could argue that the municipal ordinance created a duty on the homeowner’s part to users of the public sidewalk and that failure to comply was a breach of the duty and amounted to negligence.
What Kinds of Injuries Can Falling on Snow and Ice Cause?
Bad winter weather is among the most common causes of slip-and-fall accidents. These falls can cause significant injuries, including the following:
- Broken hips;
- Fractured ribs;
- Dislocated shoulders;
- Knee injuries;
- Hand and arm fractures and strains;
- Bruises and torn tendons.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Other kinds of injuries are possible as well. Reportedly, some 800,000 people are hospitalized yearly with severe injuries such as head trauma or a broken hip sustained in falls.
Should I Seek a Personal Injury Attorney for My “Slip and Fall” Case?
An experienced slip-and-fall attorney is knowledgeable about the law in your state regarding slip-and-fall accidents involving snow and ice on residential property. They can analyze the facts of your case and determine whether they favor your position or would probably favor the property owner. If you have been injured from slipping and falling on snow or ice on someone else’s property, you should speak with a slip-and-fall attorney who will protect your interests.