Winter Hazard: Falling On Ice and Snow


When is an owner liable to someone injured by the accumulation of ice and snow on a road or sidewalk? Does it make a difference if the sidewalk or road is owned by an individual, a town, or a state? These questions are complicated by the fact that different standards direct the liability of state government, local government, and private landowners.

Duty of Care

Private landowners owe different levels of care to different classes of people. Landowners owe the least duty of care to trespassers-landowners need only refrain from willfully or wantonly engaging in misconduct that could injure a trespasser. As to social guests, landowners owe a slightly higher duty. They must correct problems or defects of which they are aware and must warn social guests of known dangers.

The highest duty owed by private landowners is owed to business visitors. A landowner must affirmatively protect business visitors by working to seek out, find, and resolve defects. A landowner is responsible to business visitors for injuries caused even by defects or conditions unknown to the landowner if the exercise of reasonable care would have brought the defect or condition to the landowner's attention. Thus, where a social guest is injured, the guest must prove that the owner knew of the problem that caused the injury. But an injured business visitor need only prove that the owner should have known of the problem.

When a Pennsylvania motel guest slipped on a large, thin patch of ice in the motel parking lot, fracturing her shoulder, she sued the motel owner, who admitted that he only salted and sanded part of the parking lot. Emphasizing her privileged status as a business visitor, the injured woman argued that the motel owner should have known that the entire parking lot was icy. However, the motel owner successfully defended the suit, raising the long-standing doctrine of "hills and ridges."

Hills and Ridges Doctrine

The "hills and ridges" doctrine holds that an owner of land is not liable for slippery conditions resulting from fallen ice and snow unless he or she permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in uneven elevations-small ridges and hills of frozen snow or ice. In order to prove a landowner's liability, a plaintiff first must prove that the snow and ice accumulated on the sidewalk or roadway in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and create a danger. Where newly fallen, relatively undisturbed, smooth ice or snow causes someone injury, the landowner is not liable, even if the person is a business visitor. The hills and ridges doctrine recognizes and responds to the fact that any legal requirement that a landowner's property be free of ice and snow would impose an impossible burden on a landowner.

While the hills and ridges doctrine provides protection from liability to both private and government landowners, a separate body of law generally defines the responsibility of government agencies that own land or maintain roads and walkways. Linked to the ancient principle that "one cannot sue the king," state and local government agencies enjoy a complex, detailed array of immunities from lawsuits. But governmental immunity is not absolute.

Recently, a FedEx delivery man who suffered serious injuries on a Philadelphia airport roadway sued the City of Philadelphia, claiming that the city failed to properly remove accumulated snow and ice from a previous storm. The City of Philadelphia is a local governmental body, as are townships and boroughs. The delivery man won the suit on appeal. The court noted that the maintenance and operation of real estate-in this case, the roadway-is an exception to local governmental immunity from suit. But had the plaintiff fallen on a sidewalk, the result would probably have been different, because a separate exception to local governmental immunity applies to sidewalks. In the "sidewalk exception," only a defect in the sidewalk itself can give rise to liability. The accumulation of any substance on a sidewalk, whether it be ice, grease, or debris, cannot create local government liability.

State Government Liability

To complicate matters even further, similar but slightly different rules define the liability of state governments. To defeat a state agency's immunity, a plaintiff must show that a dangerous condition of the state-controlled roadway, real estate, or sidewalk caused his or her injury. For example, a Pennsylvania driver was injured after she swerved to avoid debris on a state highway. She sued PennDOT. Her suit was dismissed because she was not hurt by a dangerous defect, design, or condition of the road itself. Instead, she was injured by a temporary accumulation of debris. The same principle protects PennDOT from suits based on the simple accumulation of snow and ice on state roads.

Liability for slippery, icy conditions is first closely tied to the very particular and specific nature of the iciness. A meticulous examination of the facts is a hallmark of these liability suits. In addition, the elaborate set of rules distinguishing private owners and local and state agencies can lead to very different results, depending on who controls the lot, sidewalk, or roadway in question.