Snow Salting and Plowing: A Summary of Last Summer’s Court Opinion Affecting Property Owners and Their Guests’ Rights Under Adverse Winter Conditions

The Facts

On August 22, 2012, the Fourth District Appellate Court of Illinois announced its holding in Barber v. G.J. Partners, Inc., 974 N.E.2d 452 (4th Dist. 2012). Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging negligence on the part of a gas station owner because plaintiff slipped and fell on ice while existing her car, breaking her foot in the process as she stepped out of her vehicle in the parking lot. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed to properly maintain its premises, failed to warn plaintiff of the dangerous condition and failed to adequately inspect its premises to prevent an unnatural accumulation of snow. A jury found for the plaintiff in the amount of $372,457.25, despite holding Plaintiff 25% at fault. Prior to the jury verdict, the Court denied Defendant’s motions for summary judgment and directed verdict, and then later denied Defendant’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The Appellate Court then reversed the lower court jury verdict and judgment, finding for the premises owner and negating the verdict for Plaintiff.

The Holding & Rationale

On appeal the Fourth District reversed, finding that the condition of the parking lot was a natural accumulation and therefore the defendant owed the plaintiff no duty. The Appellate Court made its finding despite the fact that the defendant’s employee salted the parking lot and that the parking lot had been plowed at the request of the gas station’s owner. The court stated that the law was clear. The mere sprinkling of salt that causes ice to melt, which may later refreeze, does not aggravate a natural condition and thereby does not subject the property owner to liability. The Court also stated that if landowners voluntarily remove snow, they do not owe a duty to remove the natural accumulation of ice underneath the snow.

The court further reasoned that plowing and salting are desirable actions, which it did not want to discourage, and that these actions can rarely be done perfectly. The court noted that affirming the trial court decision would place an onerous burden on property owners and possibly discourage snow-removal efforts altogether. For these reasons, the court reversed and remanded with instructions to set aside the verdict and to grant the defendant’s judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Implications of Barber v. G.J. Partners, Inc.

The Court’s holding raises some interesting questions. If a landowner or its property maintainer attempts to “improve” a snow/ice accumulation, can’t “tighter” packing of snow and ice occur by such attempts, thereby making it more dangerous? Does this Court’s decision protect a landowner/property maintainer from any activity it undertakes to remove snow or ice, even if it increases the risks to its patrons?? What if a landowner’s attempts to “better” the snow and ice condition on its property actually makes conditions more treacherous by unevenly salting, shoveling snow/ice in ways to block ingress and egress or to make it far more uneven and choppy for walking conditions? What risky conducts should be excused in the name of snow-removal efforts? As members of the spending/shopping public, we must all ask ourselves what conduct did the owner/maintainer perform to actually increase the danger and risk for visitors to be hurt?

Whatever snow removal efforts are undertaken, it is clear that some efforts can make an already dangerous situation much more treacherous. A total bar or protection from premises liability may ultimately protect those very companies or their agents who create these dangerous situations. The key in these cases will be to establish and show what steps were undertaken or ignored by a property owner or maintainer to aggravate a natural condition, or made it more dangerous to a patron and which may have contributed to a person’s injuries.

Top 3 Things to Remember If Injured Due to Snow or Ice on Another’s Property

1.    Take Pictures of the Scene of the Injury ASAP

Your goal is to preserve the scene of the accident as best as possible. If you happen to have a camera phone or a camera, take pictures while still at the scene. Take a photo of the area where you were injured. If you need help taking pictures by all means ask for it. If you can video the scene and show how you were injured (Don’t hurt yourself!), even better. The more you can do to preserve the scene as it was on the date and at the time of the accident, the more likely you can show what caused you to be injured.

2.    Do Not Make Any Statements to Anyone

Most often injured victims at a scene are requested then or immediately afterwards to give a tape-recorded statement. Most of the early persons coming to your aid will likely be employees or ones whose interests are not aligned with your interests. Insurance company adjusters or independent investigators are specially trained on how to ask questions to seek their own desired responses. Be Aware! Your best response is that you just don’t feel well or up to talking now.

3.    You Should Make Measurements

Sometimes premises liability cases are made or fail because of the distance, size, height, length, width, etc. of some variable. If you are able, make these measurements on the date of the incident because your measurements can then be assumed to be accurate. The further in time that these measurements are done from the date of the incident the more likely changes or alterations could be made so that your later measurements are not accurate or complete. Measurements and dimensions of the scene and what contributed to cause your injury are critical pieces of information, especially in inclement weather conditions.