Under premises liability law, property owners have a legal duty of care (obligation) to keep their premises safe and hazard-free. This includes keeping walkways, driveways, parking lots, and other common areas clear of ice and snow. Injuries from slipping on ice and snow can be quite serious.
Accumulated ice and snow are dangerous conditions. When owners allow dangerous conditions to exist on their property, it makes them vulnerable to personal injury claims and lawsuits. Normally, there are three groups of property owners:
- Commercial establishments – retail stores, hotels, apartment complexes, and other non-residential and non-government properties
- Residential properties – privately owned homes, condominiums, duplexes, townhomes, and other non-commercial and non-government properties
- Governmental properties – post office buildings, motor vehicle departments, federal buildings, courthouses, etc.
Licensees and Invitees
A property owners’ legal duty of care extends to two specific categories of pedestrians. They are invitees and licensees.
Invitees are people who give the property owner a material benefit. For example, shoppers in a supermarket, guests at hotels, mail delivery personnel, and others who are not primarily social guests are invitees.
Licensees are people whose primary objective is social and not business. For example, neighbors, children, party guests, and friends who are social guests are licensees.
Balancing Act – How much ice and snow is too much?
The legal duty of care and subsequent liability of negligent property owners varies. The courts consider each injury case on its own merits. There are no hard and fast rules about how much ice or snow there must be to determine a property owner’s negligence. The same applies to how much time a property owner has to remove the ice or snow before becoming liable.
For instance, imagine it snowed overnight and ice accumulated on a homeowner’s sidewalk. Early the next morning a pedestrian slipped on the ice and was injured. Is the homeowner liable? Would a business owner be liable? What about the government? Are they all liable?
The answer is, “It depends.” Each pedestrian injury case has its own variables. Unlike the obvious danger that large potholes, debris, or uneven pavement pose to visitors, ice and snow present a more “fluid” danger. Ice can form in a matter of hours and melt just as quickly, or it can build up and become a lurking danger. The probability of people walking on the sidewalks is also a factor in determining liability.
When does the property owner’s duty to remove snow and ice begin? If it accumulated overnight on the sidewalk, at what time the next morning must the property owner remove it? It depends. If the sidewalk was residential, the homeowner’s duty to clear the snow and ice is maybe not as pressing as a storeowner’s or the government’s.
Example: Delivery girl fell off bicycle
It snowed overnight. At 7:00 a.m., a newspaper delivery girl came to deliver the morning paper. As she rode her bike on the sidewalk in front of a home, she slipped and fell on ice, sustaining injuries.
In this case it’s likely the homeowner isn’t liable. The homeowner’s failure to remove the ice and snow in front of her home by 7:00 a.m. is probably not negligence. The courts might consider it an unreasonable burden on the homeowner to have to clear her sidewalks by 7:00 a.m.
However, under the same weather conditions, a storeowner’s failure to remove the accumulated snow and ice by 7:00 a.m., resulting in a customer’s injuries, is probably negligence.
Example: Failing to clear sidewalk
A delicatessen’s business hours are from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The morning after the same heavy snowfall, a customer came by at 7:00 a.m. to purchase a bagel and coffee. As she walked up to the delicatessen’s front door, she slipped on ice that accumulated on the sidewalk in front of the deli, suffering a broken arm.
The deli owner’s failure to remove the ice by the time he opened for business at 7:00 a.m. would be considered negligent. The courts probably wouldn’t consider it an unreasonable burden for the storeowner to clear the sidewalk by the time he knew customers would arrive.
Here’s the difference:
There’s a reasonable expectation multiple customers will walk on the deli owner’s sidewalk at 7:00 a.m., while that expectation isn’t the same for the homeowner. Whether the court applies the same legal duty of care to a homeowner because of one newspaper delivery at 7:00 a.m., compared to multiple customers coming to the deli is doubtful.
Also, because the deli owner knows snow and ice accumulate each year at about the same time, he’d be hard-pressed to say he didn’t know a customer might be injured. And, the courts might consider the deli owner’s failure to have proper snow removal equipment, or personnel with de-icing compounds in place before 7:00 a.m., as negligent.
Not entirely so for the homeowner. The homeowner gets more latitude in the time she has to remove the snow, and the courts probably wouldn’t require her to have snow removal equipment or hire personnel to clear the sidewalk. If the same snowfall fell on a parking lot at the post office, the courts would probably say the government is as liable as the storeowner.
Burden of Proof – Evidence and the Insurance Company
If you’re hurt because of a property owner’s negligence, you have a right to compensation for your damages. Damages usually include your medical and chiropractic bills; out-of-pocket expenses for prescriptions, crutches, bandages, etc.; lost wages, sick days and vacation time; and for your pain and suffering.
If you’re hurt after slipping on ice or snow, you have to prove to the property owner’s insurance company their insured was negligent. Bearing in mind the different levels of responsibility imposed on homeowners, businesses, and government properties, your evidence must appropriately support your claim.
Here’s a list of the evidence you’ll need to succeed:
Photographs and video
Use your cell phone to take pictures of the icy area you fell on. Take as many shots as possible, including video footage. Be sure to shoot the footage showing other areas where ice and snow adjoining the owner’s property is already clear. You want to make sure there’s little doubt the slippery condition exists.
Remember, the ice and snow will probably get removed within hours, either by the property owner or as it melts. Once the ice is gone, you’ve lost the opportunity to document it visually as important evidence in your injury claim. If your injuries are bad, ask someone to take pictures for you.
While other employees, friends, and family can serve as secondary witnesses to your slip and fall injury, independent witnesses should serve as primary witnesses. Because independent witnesses usually have no personal or financial interest in the outcome of your claim, their testimony has much greater weight and credibility.
Ask all your witnesses to write down how they saw you fall and describe the icy conditions. Have them write down their impressions of the pain you suffered when you fell. They can use any piece of paper available.
Example: Negligent property maintenance
While walking your dog one afternoon, you passed the front sidewalk of your neighbor’s home. It snowed a couple of days ago, and the temperature still hovered at about 30 degrees. Almost all the homeowners on your block salted their walkways, so there’s no ice or snow on the sidewalks. Unfortunately, your neighbor didn’t even attempt to de-ice her sidewalk. As a result, you slipped and fell, sustaining injuries.
Because that homeowner, in her defense, may say you could have walked in the street, ask your witness to state the street had a lot of traffic, presenting an obvious danger. Also have her mention the area on the side of the street still had accumulated snow and ice from plowing.
The final piece of evidence to link your injuries directly to the property owner’s negligence are your medical charts and treatment records. Medical records are vital. They create the link between the slip and fall and your injury.
It’s important to prove the ice or snow’s dangerous nature was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your injury. Photographs and witness statements are very important proof linking your injuries to the snow or ice. But without the treating physician’s written diagnosis directly linking your injuries to the fall, the neighbor’s insurance company can challenge your claim.
When the physician asks how your injury happened, tell her you slipped on ice left on the sidewalk. The physician will add that information to your medical chart. In essence, your medical chart will confirm the doctor treated you for injuries caused by a slip on ice in front of the store.
Should you hire an attorney?
If your injury occurred on government property, you have to file a tort claim. There’s usually a very short filing deadline, sometimes only 45 days. If you don’t think you can meet that deadline, it’s better to seek the advice and counsel of a personal injury attorney.
Also, if your injuries are serious, including broken bones, scarring, or head trauma, you need an experienced personal injury attorney. In cases with serious or long-term injuries, too much is at stake to try handling the case on your own.
See an example of a demand letter for a slip and fall on ice.
Slip and Fall on an Icy Driveway – In this slip and fall lawsuit, the plaintiff alleges the defendant was negligent in not keeping her driveway clear of snow and ice, causing a dangerous hazard and resulting in injury to the plaintiff.
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