When are businesses liable for an injury caused by a snowy and icy slip and fall?

Here is a typical slip and fall case: a grandmother leaves her house on a snowy winter day to go shopping at the local supermarket. As she pulls into the parking lot a fresh half-inch of snow and ice layers the surface of the lot. She gets out of her car and as she makes her way to the storefront she slips and falls on the snowy ground, injuring herself. This is one version of what attorneys call a “slip and fall” case and it raises the question of whether or not the supermarket is legally responsible for grandma’s injury. The answer hinges on a legal rule in Pennsylvania known as the “hills and ridges” doctrine.

Winter is here

Given the current winter weather in Pennsylvania, every business owner with a storefront or parking lot should be aware of how the doctrine works.

The “hills and ridges” doctrine

In Pennsylvania the “hills and ridges” doctrine says that in order for a business owner to be liable for a slip and fall that occurs on their premises due to snowy and icy conditions the injured party must prove the following three elements:

  1. That snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to constitute a danger to pedestrians
  2. That the property owner was aware of the existence of such a condition
  3. That it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice that caused the plaintiff to fall.

How the rule operates

Basically, this rule protects business owners from liability for general slippery conditions in the snow and ice in parking lots or on sidewalks, unless the accumulation results in “ridges and elevations.” A pile or accumulation of ice must be of such size as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling through it in order to be considered a ridge or elevation.

Dealing with ridges and elevations

If snow and ice does accumulate enough to become a ridge or elevation the property owner has a reasonable time after becoming aware of the snowy and icy conditions to remove it from the area.  If a ridge or elevation does develop, and the owner does not remove it in a reasonable amount of time, she could be liable for any injuries it causes.

A real life example of a slip and fall case

The example above of the grandmother’s slip and fall in a parking lot is close to a real case that occurred and, as you might now guess, the owner of the parking lot was found not liable for the grandmother’s injuries. The court concluded that no “ridge or elevation” had accumulated and it was only a general slippery condition that lead to her fall.

Word of caution about a slip and fall case

The lesson to be learned is that although property owners may not be liable for all slip and falls on their property in snowy conditions they may be found liable where snow and ice accumulates to a dangerous degree. A responsible business storefront wants to ensure that dangerous levels of snow and ice do not accumulate on their property in order to protect themselves from liability. Additionally, some exceptions to the rule do exist, so in order to cover all of your bases, contact an attorney. Good luck, and happy shoveling this year.