Snow and Ice Liability
Although it doesn’t seem quite timely given that we’re just entering summer, property owners need to be concerned about snow and ice removal, and specifically with the legal implications over whether, and how, one undertakes such a task. Thankfully, a recent Illinois Supreme Court case helps clarify the law in this regard.
As a general rule, property owners have no common law duty to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice. What’s a natural accumulation? It’s the presence of snow and ice as delivered by the weather and untouched by man.
For commercial property owners who nonetheless decide to clear snow and ice, they can be held liable if they do so negligently. For example, if a commercial property owner piles up snow next to the entrance door where it’s likely to melt and cause someone to slip, the owner has probably acted negligently and could be held liable for any injuries. Said another way, the owner has created an unnatural accumulation and is now responsible for the logical consequences.
Recognizing that it’s good public policy to encourage property owners to voluntarily remove snow and ice, Illinois passed a law in 1979 called the Snow and Ice Removal Act. It applies only to residential property owners and not to commercial property owners. The Act states that such residential property owners can’t be held liable for snow and ice removal (salting, snow blowing, plowing, shoveling, etc.) unless they’ve done so in a “willful and wanton” manner. The willful and wanton standard is pretty close to intentional wrong doing. Think of someone who takes all the snow off of a driveway and piles it next to the driver side door of a car making it hazardous for someone to enter. But negligence, which is defined as a failure to observe a standard of reasonable care, gets immunity under the Act. So most homeowners won’t be held liable if they voluntarily remove snow and ice, even if they do so negligently.
That’s a good thing here in Springfield, because unlike common law, the City has an ordinance requiring property owners to remove snow and ice after a significant weather event. The Springfield ordinance applies to both residential and commercial owners and states that by 10 am the day after a snow fall “sidewalks in front of and adjoining” the premises have to be cleared of snow and ice or, if that’s not possible, sand, ashes or sawdust should be used.
Turning back to the Snow and Ice Removal Act, the immunity it provides makes it very difficult to bring a claim against a property owner for injuries resulting from a fall on snow or ice. In that regard, and as sometimes happens in the law, various courts throughout Illinois took different views of the scope of immunity provided by the Act. Some courts limited immunity to negligent shoveling and removal only. Other courts extended the coverage provided by the Act so that it included the negligent design of the building or sidewalk itself that caused a dangerous condition. (For example, a property owner can create an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice because of improperly placed downspouts or gutters or changes to the grade and surface of sidewalks and driveways.)
That’s one of the reasons we have a Supreme Court – to help address what lawyers call a “split in the circuits” where one court rules one way and another court rules another way. As best as possible, one goal of the law is uniformity and predictability. So, late last year the Illinois Supreme Court cleared up the dispute in a case titled Murphy-Hylton v. Lieberman Management Services.
In Murphy-Hylton, the plaintiff fell on ice she claimed formed because of a negligently designed sloping sidewalk and unnatural conditions created by defective downspout drainage. The defense claimed that the Act afforded it immunity from liability.
A unanimous Court found that "The Snow and Ice Removal Act provides immunity to residential property owners from claims of liability for injuries allegedly caused by icy sidewalks that result from negligent snow and ice removal efforts, but it does not extend to immunize them from claims of liability for injuries allegedly caused by icy sidewalks that result from an otherwise negligent failure to maintain the premises."
Said another way, the Court held that the Act doesn’t automatically shield property owners from liability for negligence related to snow and ice. If the facts don’t involve natural accumulation, and instead relate to some other negligent act that caused the injury, the common law standard analysis (exercise of reasonableness under the conditions) is still the law.