Snow and ice reminds small businesses to avoid slip and fall liability

Snow and ice sidewalkIf you own a small business with a storefront, sidewalk, or parking lot, a “slip and fall” accident is a very real threat. In Pittsburgh and across the rest of Pennsylvania, the winter months bring a series of winter storms that leave snow and ice behind. Customers who are injured from slipping and falling, particularly the elderly, will have to consider suing the small business owner who was responsible for the walkway where they fell. Business owners should know the law about slip and fall cases so they can protect themselves.

What legal duty do small business owners owe their guests?

Under Pennsylvania law, when people are invited to a property for a business purpose of the owner, they are considered invitees, and the highest legal duty applies. The owner has a legal duty not only to remove dangerous conditions, but also to investigate and discover whether such conditions exist. If you look closely inside most retail stores, you will see a clipboard with a record of employees making a sweep through each area to make sure there are no spills on the floor.

The same legal duty applies to the exterior areas of a business property. When snowy and icy conditions are present, it is important for the business owner to inspect walkways and make them safe for the invitees.

What areas have to be cleared of snow and ice?

Any paved areas where invitees (customers) are likely to walk should be safe for them. Sidewalks and walkways are obvious examples, but it is also important to make sure other areas are cleared. The parking lot should be shoveled and salted so that customers can safely get to and from their vehicles. Business owners should also be aware of any shortcut paths that their customers regularly take, even if they aren’t on the standard sidewalks.

How does a plaintiff prove notice?

When a customer suffers an injury on a business property due to a slip and fall, most of the legal case is easy to establish. The injuries will be well-documented, and experts can testify that the injury was caused by a traumatic fall. There is usually one issue that becomes the focal point of the legal battle: notice.

If the business owner had no notice of the dangerous condition, there is no liability. So the plaintiff has to prove that the business owner either knew or should have known about the condition. If witnesses can establish that the business’s employees actually saw the dangerous condition, that is enough to prove actual notice. With snowy and icy conditions, the plaintiff usually has to prove constructive notice, and one way to do that is using the hills and ridges doctrine. In Pennsylvania, the hills and ridges doctrine is a way of proving that the owner should have known about the slippery snow and ice on their property. If the snow and ice has been left long enough, it tends to naturally form hills and ridges. Once that happens, the law assumes that the owner knew or should have known about the danger.

What happens if the plaintiff is partially at fault for the injury?

Under Pennsylvania law, there are two ways that a business owner can escape liability after a slip and fall injury. One doctrine is called assumption of risk, and applies when the plaintiff knew about a risk and decided to proceed anyway. This could apply in a icy slip and fall scenario if a customer steps off of the safely shoveled sidewalk to cut across a snow-covered grass area that has not been cleared. If that customer slips and falls, it would be a good argument to say that the customer assumed the risk. The second doctrine is comparative negligence. Customer could be comparatively negligent if they weren’t walking normally or paying reasonable attention to where they were going. 

The takeaway for small business owners

There are a number of nuanced legal issues that arise once attorneys are brought in to argue about liability, but at the end of the day, the most important thing for everyone involved is to prevent the injury in the first place.

The best practical advice is to avoid a slip and fall accident with responsible planning. It is well worth the effort to make sure that snow is shoveled and ice is salted as soon as possible from all walkways. Establish routines and employee responsibilities that kick in automatically every time it snows, and set up good systems to keep records. Keep an eye on the weather forecasts, and check up on employees or contractors who are supposed to be clearing walkways to make sure they are doing their jobs.