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Skating Through Snow and Ice Mishaps - A Primer in Connecticut’s Premises Liability Law

Connecticut
January 27, 2021
January 27, 2021
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The elements of a cause of action for negligence are well established: duty, breach of that duty, causation, and actual injury. Pelletier v. Sordoni/Skanska Const. Co., 286 Conn. 563, 593 (2008). “The status of an entrant on another’s land, be it trespasser, licensee or invitee, determines the duty that is owed to the entrant while he or she is on a landowner’s property.” Salaman v. Waterbury, 246 Conn. 298, 304-05 (1998).

Invitees fall into two broad categories: public and business.[1] A public invitee is someone invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public.  A business invitee is someone, like a customer, invited to enter or remain on land for a purpose connected with the business dealings with the possessor of the land. Gargano v. Azpiri, 110 Conn. App. 502, 506 (2008).   A property owner has a duty to an invitee to inspect the premises, and erect safeguards, if necessary, to render the premises reasonably safe.  An owner is liable for defects that would ordinarily be discoverable by a reasonable inspection and has a duty to give a proper warning regarding the same.

Connecticut recognizes the nondelegable duty doctrine in premises liability cases. Smith v. Town of Greenwich, 278 Conn. 428, 457 (2006).  The owner or occupier of premises owes invitees a nondelegable duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of such persons. Id. Owners owe a nondelegable duty to keep the premises safe by protecting third persons from foreseeable slip and fall injuries. Id. “[T]he nondelegable duty doctrine means that a party may contract out the performance of a nondelegable duty, but may not contract out his ultimate legal responsibility. Id. This doctrine and the relationship between property owners and independent contractors preclude defendant property owners from making apportionment claims against contractors for breaches of nondelegable duties. Id. (citing Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572h(c).

A property owner may not seek apportionment for the owner’s nondelegable duty concerning snow removal. Smith, 278 Conn. at 457.   In premises liability cases, a “nondelegable duty” means that the “owner or occupier of premises owes invitees a nondelegable duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of such persons. Id. at 458; Gazo v. City of Stamford, 255 Conn. 245, 255 (2001) (“[A] party may contract out the performance of a nondelegable duty but may not contract out his ultimate legal responsibility.”) (emphasis in original).  “Should the owner or occupier of the premises hire a contractor to maintain the property, the owner or occupier is vicariously liable for the consequences arising from that contractor’s tortious conduct.” Smith, 278 Conn. at 460.

“A licensee is a person who is privileged to enter or remain on land by virtue of the possessor’s consent, whether given by invitation or permission.” Salaman, 246 Conn. at 305   “An invitation differs from a permission only in this: an invitation is conduct which justifies others in believing that the possessor desires them to enter; a permission is conduct justifying others in believing that the possessor is willing that they shall enter if they desire to do so.” Klein v. Quinnipiac Univ., 193 Conn. App. 469, 481 (2019).

If a licensor actually or constructively knows of the presence of a licensee on its premises, the licensor must use reasonable care “both to refrain from actively subjecting [the licensee] to danger and to warn him of dangerous conditions which the possessor knows of[,] but which he cannot reasonably assume that the licensee knows of or by reasonable use of his faculties would observe.” Morin v. Bell Court Condo. Ass’n, Inc., 223 Conn. 323, 329 (1992).   To establish that the possessor had constructive knowledge of the presence of the licensee on the premises, a licensee must prove a level of knowledge “equivalent to actual knowledge.” See Corcoran v. Jacovino, 161 Conn. 462, 467-68 (1971).

Storm in Progress Doctrine

Connecticut recognizes the ongoing storm doctrine, which may operate to suspend temporarily, a property owner’s duty to perform snow and ice removal. See Kraus v. Newton, 211 Conn. 191, 197-98 (1989). This doctrine bars a plaintiff’s claim when there is a storm in progress at the time and place of a plaintiff’s fall. Absent unusual circumstances, a landowner may await the end of the winter storm, and a reasonable time thereafter, before removing ice and snow deposited by that storm. Id.

Property Abutting State or Municipal Ways

Under the common law, in the absence of a statute or ordinance, an abutting landowner “ordinarily is under no duty to keep the public sidewalk in front of his property in a reasonable safe condition for travel.” Wilson v. City of New Haven, 213 Conn. 277, 280 (1989). Connecticut law allows municipalities to adopt a state statute, which renders such municipalities not liable “to any person injured in person or property caused by the presence of ice or snow on a public sidewalk unless” the municipality owns or possesses and controls the land abutting such sidewalk. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-163.

For example, the City of New Haven has adopted the provision of this section. Pursuant to local ordinance, “[t]he City of New Haven shall not be liable to any person injured . . . by ice or snow on a public sidewalk, unless the city owns or is in possession and control of the land abutting such sidewalk . . . . However, the city shall be liable for its affirmative acts regarding such sidewalk.” New Haven, Connecticut Code of Ordinances, § 2-87. Therefore, pursuant to state law and local ordinance, an individual alleging damages as a result of snow or ice on a public sidewalk in New Haven, Connecticut must seek recovery from the abutting landowner, rather than the municipality. See Morgan v. Yale Univ., 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2616 (New Haven 2009). Some municipalities will also impose a time period from when snow and ice should be removed from sidewalks or roadways. Cheshire, Connecticut mandates that the owner, tenant or occupant, or any person having care of land or building adjoining any sidewalk constituting a public highway shall remove all snow, sleet, and ice within 24 hours after the storm has ceased. Cheshire, Code of Ordinances Sec. 10-4(b).

[1]A third kind of invitee, namely, the social invitee, is subsumed within the category of business invitee. See, e.g., Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-577a (“The standard of care owed to a social invitee shall be the same as the standard of care owed to a business invitee.”)