8-27-12; Illinois Appellate Court provides a primer for the industry on the “unnatural accumulation” theory of snow and ice in handling/accepting IL fall-down claims. Adjusters who handle such...

As a dedicated insurance defense law firm, we were happy to see our Appellate Court reverse a multiple six-figure jury award where Defendant gas station appeared to do everything they could to clear snow and ice and provide safe ingress and regress to their customers. While an unfortunate and no doubt painful injury, such accidents are not always the fault of the landlord, particularly when Old Man Winter creates the circumstances leading to the injury.

In Barber v. G.J. Partners, Inc., (2012 IL App (4th) 110992, issued 8/22/12), Plaintiff suffered a slip and fall while exiting her vehicle as she was entering a gas station, fracturing her ankle. Heavy snow the day prior compelled the gas station to clear the lot with a plow and salt the front areas of the store. Nevertheless, there were a few metal plates (4ft X 4ft), slightly below the concrete, which had snow and ice packed in them from the plow and subsequent traffic.

Plaintiff argued such areas of packed snow led to an unnatural accumulation near lined parking spots and Defendant failed to warn customers of the slippery condition. Defendant on the other hand, argued there was no evidence of an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice upon which Plaintiff fell. The jury found for Plaintiff and thereafter, the trial judge denied Defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Defendant’s appeal followed.

Despite testimony from employees who acknowledged slippery conditions were created by the snow-packed plates, the Appellate Court nevertheless reversed the jury award and agreed to enter a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of Defendants. Citing precedent, the Court noted:

·         “[T]he mere removal of snow which may leave a natural ice formation on the premises does not constitute negligence.”

·         Further, “the mere sprinkling of salt, causing ice to melt, although it may later freeze, does not aggravate a natural condition so as to form a basis for liability on the part of the property owner.”

·         Perhaps most important to this case, the Court further cited case-law to note “ruts and uneven surfaces created by traffic in snow and ice are not considered unnatural and cannot form the basis for liability.”

The Court explained a property owner may be subject to liability if the voluntary snow removal is performed in a negligent manner. Such liability may arise where a “new, unnatural or artificial condition” were created by the snow removal. However, the shoveling of parking areas and sidewalks is generally beneficial to customers. Store owners should not be discouraged from doing so simply because such operations can rarely be done “perfectly” during winter months.

The ruling is on the web at: http://www.state.il.us/court/opinions/AppellateCourt/2012/4thDistrict/4110992.pdf. This article was researched and written by John P. Campbell, Jr., J.D., please feel free to send your thoughts and comments to John at jcampbell@keefe-law.com.