We have had record snowfall in New York this month and that means plenty of people slipping and falling on snow and ice. As a personal injury attorney, I am frequently asked when is a slip and fall on snow and ice one of the hazards of the season and when does it result from negligence?
Sometimes a slip on snow and ice is simply an accident. It has happened to all of us and if we’re lucky, we get up, wipe off the snow and hope that no one saw us fall. If we’re lucky, we can laugh about it. Sometimes the slip and fall can cause injury, especially among the elderly. The fall can break bones or leave us with bad backs or sprains of our knees, ankles and wrists. The reality is that simply because one suffers an injury does not mean that someone else is to blame. Common sense and our experience tells us that during and after a snowstorm, we all need to tread with a little more caution.
Yet there are times when a slip and fall on ice that causes an injury resulted from the negligence of the property owner. Failing to properly remove ice and snow or to fix a condition that creates an ice hazard are common forms of negligence that can lead to an injury. Clearing snow and ice, but in a haphazard or inconsistent way can create a dangerous situation and lead to negligence.
What Can a Property Owner Do to Prevent Slips and Falls on Snow and Ice?
No one wants to see someone slip and fall on their property and suffer an injury. In the face of snow and ice, what is a property owner to do? We have an obligation to take reasonable steps to clear ice and snow from walkways and public passageways. Many municipalities, such as New York City, require property owners to clear the sidewalks in front of their buildings. Owners of stores and offices need to clear the entrances and exits to their buildings. Parking lot owners, if they intend their parking lot to be used, need to clear the snow and ice from their parking lots.
Applying a reasonableness test means that we do not need to clear walkways in the middle of a snowstorm, but should do so in a reasonable time after a storm. The reasonable test means that we should do a thorough job of clearing ice and snow. If I clear the sidewalk in front of my building, then I need to clear a pathway wide enough to allow foot traffic and I need to be consistent so that I don’t leave icy patches. If I clear a parking lot, I need to clear the entire area that people may use and I should not leave icy patches. Why is consistency important? If I create the impression that the walkway or parking lot is clear and yet I leave some icy patches, then I set a trap for someone to fall.
If I know that snow will melt and refreeze on a passageway – creating the dreaded black ice – then I have an obligation to prevent the ice from forming and to clear the ice so it does form. That means putting down sand or salt or some other substance to melt the ice. I have an obligation to monitor the condition of the walkway to make sure it is safe.
Private homeowners have more leeway. For example, at my home, we leave part of our driveway uncleared so our children can go sleigh riding. (As they reach college age, there’s less frolicking in the snow). However, we do clear part of the driveway and the path that leads from the driveway to the house. In doing so, we create an expectation for visitors that the cleared path is safe. If we did a poor job, we could create a hazard. In general, if a private homeowner does nothing, that homeowner creates no expectation that the path is safe to travel. If you do clear a path, then you must do a good job to make it safe for use.
When Does a Slip and Fall Result from Negligence?
Having reviewed the reasonable expectations of what a property owner should do, it becomes easier to identify when a slip and fall results from negligence. If a sidewalk or parking lot is cleared in a haphazard way, creating icy patches, that can be negligence. If black ice forms and should have been prevented or cleared, that can be negligence. If a defect, such as a leaky pipe, causes black ice to form, that can be negligence. If a landlord only clears part of a sidewalk and a person goes to use that sidewalk and falls, that could be a negligence case.
It is important to remember that no matter what a property owner does, as pedestrians, we all have an obligation to tread with caution and to be wary of potential hazards caused by ice and snow. In trials resulting from slips and falls on ice and snow, juries often look first at the victim and wonder how he or she could let this happen. Because of that perception, it can be very hard to prove a slip and fall on ice case. Even when a plaintiff prevails, juries commonly hold the plaintiff – that is the victim of the slip and fall – at least partly responsible for a slip and fall on ice.
In the past week, I have received numerous phone calls and emails from people asking if their fall on snow and ice resulted from another party’s negligence. Let’s look at some of these potential cases:
- A college student pulls into the designated parking lot to attend class on Friday morning, the day after the snowfall. She parks in a designated lot, which has been cleared. As she walks towards her classroom building, she falls on an icy patch and breaks her ankle. She may be able to prove negligence because the university had ample time to clear the parking lot and had told students to use that lot and report to class. The young woman had the expectation that the parking lot was safe to cross and it was not.
- A woman works cleaning houses. She shows up at one client’s home that requires that she walk down a flight of outdoor stairs to a basement apartment. She is very careful going down the stairs, but slips and falls on black ice and hurts her back. It turns out the black ice formed from water dripping from a busted gutter. The failure to fix the gutter and to clear the black ice that it caused created a hazard and forms the basis for a negligence claim.
- As a snowstorm wound down, a woman walked on the sidewalk in front of a fast food restaurant. She slips and falls on a snowy patch. A companion goes to tell the manager of the restaurant who is rude and does not offer to help. Because the snow had just ended, the restaurant probably cannot be held liable for this fall. It would be a very hard to prove negligence. Nonetheless, the woman should file a complaint with the restaurant owner given the manger’s rudeness.
Consider a few other sample slip and fall on snow and ice cases that I have handled which may further illuminate when negligence existed:
- A woman parked her car at a train station parking lot and walked to pay her parking fee at the pay station. She could not see and did not expect to find black ice that covered the pay station floor. It turns out that the railroad failed to clear the ice. The woman slipped and fell and hurt her neck and so badly that she ultimately required surgery. After proving liability at trial, the defendant settled and paid $265,000.
- A Nassau County man walked to use a stand-alone ATM. On his way out of the parking lot where the ATM stood, he slipped and fell on uncleared ice. He fractured his ankle and required surgery. The parking lot owner had the obligation to clear the path to the open ATM and failed to do so. The defense settled the case for $160,000.
- A Bronx man walked out of his friend’s apartment building and slipped on some uncleared ice, breaking his ankle. The landlord had cleared some of the sidewalk, but as the man made his way home, he slipped on an icy patch the landlord had failed to clear. The case settled on the eve of trial for $150,000.
- A Suffolk County woman walked out of her chiropractor’s office a few days before Christmas and slipped and fell on some ice injuring her back. It turns out that the lawn sprinklers had run that morning and created the icy hazard. Several of the retail tenants called to complain, but the property owner ignored their calls to clear the sidewalk. Because he created the hazard with the sprinklers (in December!) and failed to clear the ice despite ample warning, the landlord bore liability for the woman’s fall. The case settled at mediation for $35,000.
In all the bad weather we have had, we all need to use some extra caution and care. If you are a property owner, take care to fulfill your obligation to keep your public access areas safe. If you are out walking, wear shoes that make sense for the conditions and be wary of icy patches. If you slip and fall and injure yourself, make sure you get the medical care you need. If you think your injury resulted from the negligence of another person or party, you may want to discuss the incident with a personal injury attorney experienced with handling slip and fall cases on snow and ice. I will be glad to answer your questions and assist you. There is never a charge for this consultation. You can call me at 1-800-660-1466 or email me. You can also visit my website or read more on my blog, New York Law Thoughts.
This material is intended for informational uses only. It is not meant as legal advice. To receive legal advice, you should consult an attorney.