Whether it is ice-skating at Millennium Park or cross-country skiing on Northerly Island, winter brings to Chicago many opportunities to enjoy the ice and snow. Yet, the signs near storefronts and skyscrapers, warning of falling ice or wet floors, are a constant reminder that Chicago’s freezing temperatures are not without risks. As we walk to work or shop along Michigan avenue, it is important for property owners and visitors alike to be aware of their rights and responsibilities in relation to injuries caused by ice and snow.
The law in Illinois is well-established that property owners and business operators have a general duty to provide a “reasonably safe” means of entering and exiting their premises. For example, it is the owner’s responsibility to properly illuminate the area and to give adequate warning of any known, dangerous conditions. However, Illinois law also provides that property owners are not liable for injuries resulting from the “natural accumulation” of ice, snow, or water on their premises. The term “natural accumulation” includes conditions such as the ordinary buildup of ice on a building, uneven surfaces formed by pedestrians or vehicles, and it also extends to water tracked inside a building by visitors.
Illinois courts have held that when ice, snow, or water naturally accumulates on the premises, the property owner has no legal obligation to remove the condition or to warn visitors of the potential danger. However, taking simple steps like placing a rug or caution sign in the vicinity of the hazard can reduce the number of injuries caused by these conditions.
It should be noted that if a property owner voluntarily assumes the duty to remove ice, snow, or water, he does not automatically assume liability simply by adopting these safety measures. When an owner decides to take extra steps to keep the area safe, such as regularly mopping an entryway, his or her actions are held to the standard of ordinary care. For example, when a patron sued a laundromat after she slipped and fell on a puddle of water formed by other customers as they entered the store, the court held the owner did not have a duty to remove the water – even though the laundromat had deviated from its protocol of placing floor mats near the entrance.
Moreover, to further encourage homeowners to remove ice and snow from sidewalks, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Snow and Ice Removal Act. The Act provides that residential property owners removing ice or snow from sidewalks abutting their property will not be liable for injuries unless their acts are willful and wanton.
Generally speaking, in order to establish a claim for an injury from falling on snow or ice, the claimant must first be able to show that the accumulation of ice or snow was unnatural; that is to say, the hazard was caused or aggravated by the owner. This may be a result of negligent maintenance or design of a walkway, roof, or parking lot. Secondly, the claimant must show that the owner knew or should have known about the condition and the risk. Lastly, the claimant must show that the owner would not reasonably expect persons to discover or realize the danger.
Of course, this general discussion of rights and responsibilities relating to snow and ice should not be considered a substitute for individual legal advice from an attorney based on the facts of a particular case. It is clear that the courts in Illinois have struck a balance between protecting property and business owners from circumstances beyond their control, while also providing visitors and customers an opportunity to recover for their injuries. The hope is that everyone can safely enjoy the winter months as we wait for spring to come.