Small business liability for snowy slip and fall injuries

P - jury box

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 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.” This doctrine comes into play when there is a slip and fall on a business owner’s premises and snow or ice on the ground causes it.

The “hills and ridges” doctrine

Given the impending winter in Pennsylvania, and the inevitable snowy days that will follow, every business owner with a storefront or parking lot should be aware of how the doctrine works.

In Pennsylvania the “hills and ridges” doctrine says that in order for a business owner to be held 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 travelling thereon
  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.

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 travelling through it in order to be considered a ridge or elevation.

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 the snow and ice 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.

The example above of the grandmother slipping and falling 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.

Small businesses should protect themselves from liability

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 may want 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.

Guest post by Joseph Pometto, Esq.