Slip & Fall Claims: Unnatural Accumulation of Snow and Ice in Illinois

As winter approaches, snow, ice, and water are going to become hazards for pedestrians who can injure their neck and back. In Illinois, a slip & fall accident is an actionable claim against the property owner or manager depending on how the snow, ice, or water accumulated. If an accumulation occurs naturally and without aggravation by the property owner, Illinois courts have held that a property owner generally owes no duty to remove the accumulation, regardless of how long the accumulation has been present. Despite this, Illinois courts have also found that business owners have a duty to provide a reasonably safe means in ingress and egress. Reed v. Galaxy Holdings, Inc., 394 Ill.App.3d 39 (1st Dist. 2009).

Once a property owner undertakes to clear snow or ice from the premises, the property owner assumes a duty to do so non-negligently. One such scenario is when a property owner has shoveled snow into a pile, which later melts and then refreezes, creating a hazard. If a parking lot has a sloped grade, and the snow is removed to the higher part of the parking lot, melting snow that drains back across the parking lot may result in an unnatural accumulation. Unnatural accumulations can also form from gutters or a leaking roof which drain melting snow onto a parking lot only to refreeze there.

It can often be difficult for an injured person to know exactly where an accumulation came from. Courts may deny a defendant’s motion for summary judgment if the plaintiff can show some facts supporting a plausible theory. Often, experts are hired to testify about the grade of the parking lot (See McCann v. Bethesda Hospital, 80 Ill.App.3d 544 (1st Dist. 1979)), or the proper way to plow a particular parking lot (See Webb v. Morgan, 176 Ill.App.3d 378 (5th Dist. 1988)). Sometimes, even an architect may testify about temperature fluctuations and whether the grade of an embankment could have caused the accumulation (See McCarthy v. Hidden Lacke Village Condominium Ass’n, 186 Ill.App.3d 752 (1st Dist. 1989).

In addition to an unnatural accumulation, the Plaintiff must also show that the hazard was present for a sufficient length of time such that the property owner should have removed the accumulation. Whether the property owner actually had notice of the accumulation makes no difference. After time has passed, a property owner is expected to have inspected the property and taken action to remove any unnatural accumulations.

Residential property owners are generally immune from such claims. A plaintiff cannot bring a slip & fall claim due to an unnatural accumulation on a residential side walk (whether public or private) as the Illinois legislature has granted immunity to homeowners (745 ILCS 75/0.01, et seq.). A residential property owner can only be held liable for unnatural accumulations if their conduct is willful or wanton. Willful or wanton conduct requires more than mere negligence; there must be an act or omission showing conscious disregard or utter indifference on the part of the homeowner.

Notably, Illinois courts are divided on whether this immunity applies to driveways. In Flight v. American Community Management, the First District found that a driveway was analogous to a sidewalk, and thus applied the immunity for the property owner. 384 Ill.App.3d 540 (1st Dist. 2008). However, in Gallagher v. Union Square Condominium Homewowner’s Ass’n, the Second District held just the opposite, imposing liability on the property owner for an injury sustained in the driveway of a condominium. 397 Ill.App.3d 1037 (2nd Dist. 2010).

Unnatural accumulation claims are among the most interesting liability claims to litigate. The evidence necessary to succeed can be very complex for someone without the legal knowledge to analyze a claim. If you or someone you know has a slip & fall claim, contact an experienced attorney to protect your rights and help you get just compensation.