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

Pennsylvania
January 27, 2021
January 27, 2021
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Northeast winters are becoming increasingly less wintry, however, even the occasional storm, while beautiful, can be dangerous. This can often be a liability producing situation for property owners. Ice and snow are slippery and can lead to falls. Therefore, proper ice and snow removal is critical. In order to inform and educate property owners during the winter, below is an overview of Pennsylvania’s laws on snow and ice and property owner responsibilities.

In Pennsylvania, an abutting property owner is primarily liable for the removal of ice and snow on their sidewalk. Solinsky v. Wilkes-Barre, 375 Pa. 87, 99 A.2d 570 (1953). However, the aptly named “hills and ridges” doctrine, which is unique to Pennsylvania, protects landowners from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from ice and snow where the owner has not permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations. The rationale behind the “hills and ridges” doctrine is the understanding that wintry conditions such as snow and ice are endemic to the Northeast and that “to require that one’s walks be always free of ice and snow would be to impose an impossible burden” on property owners. Gilligan v. Villanova University, 401 Pa. Super. 113, 115, 583 A.2d 1005, 1007 (1991). Pennsylvania courts have long recognized that “[s]now and ice upon a pavement create merely transient danger and the only duty upon the property owner or tenant is to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove it when it is a dangerous condition.” Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623, 625 (Pa. 1962).  A “dangerous condition” generally arises when ridges or elevations of snow and/or ice have been allowed to remain for an unreasonable length of time or were created by a property owner’s antecedent negligence. Id.

Because the “hills and ridges” doctrine is not a blanket defense to all wintry weather slip and fall claims, a plaintiff may still recover if they establish the following elements:

(1) that snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably         obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling thereon;
(2) that the property owner had notice, either actual or constructive, of the existence of such condition; [and]
(3) that it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice which caused the plaintiff to fall.
Absent proof of all such facts, a plaintiff has no basis for recovery. Id. at 625-26.

There are several prerequisites to the application of the “hills and ridges” doctrine. For instance, there must be a finding of generally slippery conditions across the community as opposed to isolated icy patches. Consider, as an example, the facts in Morin v. Traveler's Rest Motel, Inc., 704 A.2d 1085, 1088 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1997): freezing precipitation fell overnight and blanketed the entire Lancaster, Pennsylvania area just hours before the plaintiff’s fall. News reports confirmed that driving was dangerous because of the precipitation and the plaintiff herself testified that after she fell, she realized the entire parking lot was covered in ice. In that case, the court found that generally slippery conditions existed and, therefore, the “hills and ridges” doctrine applied and the defendant was not liable.

As with localized patches of ice, courts of the Commonwealth have also chosen not to apply the doctrine where the condition formed due to antecedent negligence, such as a defective water pipe, a broken hydrant, or the stoppage of a drain. Goodman v. Corn Exch. Nat'l Bank & Tr. Co., 331 Pa. 587, 591, 200 A. 642, 644 (1938).  

It is also important to note that while the “hills and ridges” doctrine has been extended to parking lots and private walkways, no case has extended the doctrine to a fall that took place inside of a structure or where the fall took place under an awning or overhang as in Heasley v. Carter Lumber, 2004 Pa. Super. 44, 843 A.2d 1274 (2004). In Heasley, the plaintiff slipped and fell while walking in a shed that contained lumber supplies at the owner’s lumberyard. The shed had an overhead roof, an awning that extended from the roof over a portion of the concrete, and three walls; the fourth side of the shed was open. The Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to extend the scope of the “hills and ridges” doctrine to include circumstances such as in Heasley where a person slips and falls inside a structure, even though that structure was partially open to the elements. Id.

The doctrine also does not provide a defense where an accumulation is not natural, such as when snow is plowed into a snowbank that obstructs a walkway. For example, the Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to apply the doctrine to a case where a woman was forced to walk in the street due to a pile of snow blocking the sidewalk which had been created when the road was plowed. See Bacsick v. Barnes, 234 Pa. Super. 616, 341 A.2d 157 (1975). The Superior Court also declined to apply the doctrine where improper snow removal and salting procedures created unnatural accumulations of ice. See Harvey v. Rouse Chamberlin, 2006 Pa. Super. 130, 901 A.2d 523 (2006).

Despite its limitations, the “hills and ridges” doctrine is an effective tool for defendants to hold plaintiffs to a higher burden of proof or, alternatively, to bar a plaintiff’s recovery altogether.

As a point of practice, it is often the case in snow and ice claims that possessors of land have contracts for snow and ice removal services. Under Pennsylvania law, defendants can delegate this type of maintenance activity to a bona fide contractor. Accordingly, when sued, defendants often can share the risk through the indemnification provisions in these contracts or by common law indemnity. Pennsylvania courts rely on the contract to determine the intent of the parties and require that the indemnified act be unambiguously stated in the indemnification provisions. Courts are more likely to enforce an indemnification claim against a snow and ice removal contractor when there is no intervening negligence (i.e. shoveling snow onto a parking lot that had already been cleared by the snow and ice removal contractor) from the property owner.

Also, many snow and ice removal contracts require that the indemnitor snow removal contractor name the indemnitee property owner as an additional insured on their general liability policy. The snow removal contract should be analyzed immediately after a loss is reported to determine whether the contract includes this requirement. If the contract does include this requirement, the property owner should request the insurance policy and all certificates of insurance from the snow and ice removal contractor to consider whether a transfer of the obligation of the defense and indemnification to the contractor was accomplished.

Regardless, this winter, before you sit back and relax with your cup of hot chocolate, you might want to consider grabbing that shovel and bag of salt, especially if the snow and ice have been on your sidewalk, parking lot, or driveway for an extended period of time.