In most years, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and must of the northeast are subjected to harsh wintry weather. While the exact nature of these storms will differ from year-to-year, it is not uncommon to have to contend with winter conditions including snowstorms, ice storms, freezing rain, and sleet. In some years, Philadelphians may have to deal with one major winter blast that drops a foot or more of snow in a single event. In other years, a steady string of smaller scale clippers and noreasters may repeated blanket the area in frozen precipitation.
When this occurs, snow and ice may pile up on sidewalks, in parking lots, on steps, and on other surfaces. Under a layer of frozen precipitation or a sheet of ice, these surfaces become extremely hazardous and slippery. Even when an individual is aware of snow or ice on a surface, it can be difficult to maintain one’s balance. When a layer of ice is concealed, also sometimes called black ice, the risk of a slip and fall increases significantly.
If you have slipped and injured yourself due to ice and snow accumulation on someone else’s property, the property owner may have held a legal duty to protect you from a defective and dangerous condition. That is, property owners and business owners are sometimes required by local ordinances to clear sidewalks and parking lots of snow and ice within 24 hours of a winter weather storm. In other circumstances, state negligence law may find that the business owner or other party had a duty to protect you from a hazard. However, not all slip and fall accidents create liability for the property owner.
When Are Property Owners Liable for Ice and Snow Slip and Falls?
The general contours of Pennsylvania law do not require a property or landowner to remove and keep areas free from snow and ice at all times. See Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623 (Pa. 1962). Due to the potentially frequent and sustained winter storms, such a requirement would be impossible and unworkable. Instead, the courts and Pennsylvania law instead require a property owner or tenant to “act within a reasonable time after notice to remove it when it is in a dangerous condition.” Harmotta v. Bender, 601 A.2d 837, 841 (Pa.Super. 1992).
However, the mere fact that snow and ice are present, does not automatically give rise to liability. Such an approach would impose something more similar to a strict liability standard than the negligence approach under which Pennsylvania slip and fall work is governed. Instead, Pennsylvania’s hills and ridges doctrine sets forth the scenarios in which liability for an accident and injury will attach to the owner.
Under the hills and ridges doctrine, liability for a slip and fall injury exists when there are natural accumulations of snow or ice in the form of hills and ridges – there is no liability solely for generally slippery conditions. These natural accumulations of snow must be allowed to remain for an unreasonable amount of time. As set forth in Gilligan v. Villanova University, 584 A.2d 1005 (Pa. Super. 1991) the following three conditions must be satisfied for an injured slip and fall injury victim to successfully recover compensation:
- An accumulation of snow and ice in hills, ridges, and other elevated features that present an unreasonable risk of injury or danger.
- The property owner received actual notice of the condition or he or she should have been aware it existed.
- The unreasonably dangerous accumulation of snow and ice is the reason for the individual’s slip and fall injury.
The above sets forth the general elements necessary to bring a successful slip and fall lawsuit against a landowner due to naturally accumulating snowy or icy conditions.
Are there Exceptions to The Hills and Ridges Doctrine?
There are certain exceptions to this doctrine that can render the hills and ridges doctrine irrelevant or otherwise increase the likelihood that viable legal action to recover compensation for injuries can be brought. To start and as discussed above, the hills and ridges doctrine only applies when generally slippery conditions are present due to natural accumulations of snow and ice. Therefore, for a single icy patch on the sidewalk of a store of a Center City shop, the hills and ridges doctrine would not apply and the action would likely be viable.
In addition, the hills and ridges doctrine does not apply and protect a property owner from his or her own negligence. Therefore, if the snow and ice accumulated due to artificial conditions present on the property – such as due to leaky gutters or a downspout with insufficient drainage – the hills and ridges doctrine would not apply.
What types of Injuries can a Fall on Snow or Ice Inflict?
Slipping on ice or snow seems like an incredibly simple mechanism of injury and, to many people, it doesn’t seem like a slip or trip could cause any real harm or serious injury. But, in reality, when someone slips on ice and snow they could fracture their skull, break their neck, injure their back, fracture bones, tear tendons and ligaments, and possibly end up paralyzed or with fatal injuries. In fact, CDC statistics reveal that among elderly adults, slip and fall injuries are a leading cause of hospital visits.
Perhaps it is surprising to many, but slip and fall accidents are also one of the main causes of traumatic brain injuries. When a person slips or trips, he or she may strike their head on an object before they hit the ground. They may also fall in a hard and uncontrolled manner striking their skull on the sidewalk, parking lot pavement, or on another hard surface. TBIs and concussions are particularly worrisome injuries because damage to the brain and its structures can cause problems ibn all other aspects of daily life. Unfortunately, catastrophic injuries such as these usually require extensive hospital stays and long-term medical care.
Besides Parking Lots, What Are Other Common Danger Areas for Winter Hazards?
One area where slip and fall injuries are all too common are parking lots for retail stores and other businesses. Some businesses, unfortunately, fail to clear snow and ice from their parking facilities. They may believe that the snow being packed down by customer vehicles will control the risk. In reality, the compressed snow and ice can become increasingly slippery. A customer typically expects the parking lot to be clear from obvious dangers and he or she may slip and fall due to the unexpected hazard.
Besides icy parking lots, sidewalks and roads are two other locations where winter weather conditions like icicles and snow drifts can cause hazardous conditions and catastrophic injuries. Accumulations of ice and snow on buildings can avalanche onto pedestrian walking below when warming temperatures cause them to break loose. This falling snow and ice can potentially injury, crush or kill people below. A sufficiently sized falling icicle from a bridge or overpass can theoretically have enough force to break through a car windshield and impale vehicle occupants. More commonly, building owners should protect against the hazard of icicles falling from building gutters or awnings. The owner should also protect against melt and freeze from icicles that can create slippery, icy conditions. Because property owners have a duty to keep their property reasonably safe, they may have a duty to hire someone to remove icicles or rope off sidewalk areas to prevent passersby from being struck by a falling icicle.
Ice and Snow Slip and Fall Injury Lawyers in Philadelphia
If you or someone you love was injured after slipping on ice or snow, or by other dangerous winter weather conditions, you may be entitled to financial compensation from the negligent property owner. The experienced Pennsylvania slip and fall accident attorneys of Reiff & Bily have over 35 years of experience investigating and litigating claims of premises liability, slip and fall accidents, catastrophic injuries, and wrongful death. Pennsylvania premises liability law regarding slip and fall accidents on ice and snow can be extremely complicated, so you need someone with years of experience to represent you if you have been catastrophically injured. The premises liability attorneys of Reiff & Bily are greedy for justice and will fight to hold negligent property owners accountable for your injuries, medical costs, rehabilitation costs, pain, and suffering, and lost wages. Contact us for a no-obligation, confidential consultation, and we will evaluate your case to determine if you have a claim.