This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.
Healy Scanlon Law Firm is comprised of eight trial attorneys, two of whom are from Ireland. We are located downtown at 111 West Washington Street, Suite 1425, Chicago, Illinois 60602 (312-226-4236). www.HealyLawFirm.com. The firm concentrates in the representation of injured victims of all types of accidents.
Readers are encouraged to call or write with questions concerning personal injury law.
Whether ice-skating at Millennium Park or cross-country skiing in the Forest Preserves, winter brings to Chicagoland many opportunities to enjoy the ice and snow. Yet, caution signs near storefronts and other businesses that warn of slick conditions remind us that Chicago’s freezing temperatures are not without risks. Property owners and visitors alike are well-advised to know their rights and responsibilities regarding 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 snow and the resulting water tracked inside a building by visitors. Nevertheless, when property owners create an “unnatural accumulation” of snow and ice, they can be responsible for injuries caused by it.
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.
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 undertaking these safety measures. When an owner decides to take extra steps to keep the area safe, such as regularly mopping an entryway, laying down mats and placing caution signs, an owner would only be liable for injuries if his actions were deemed less than reasonably careful. For example, when a patron sued a laundromat after she slipped and fell on a puddle of water formed inside the facility, at the door, by other customers as they entered, the court found the owner did not have a duty to remove the water – even though the laundromat had deviated from its own protocol of placing floor mats near the entrance.
Moreover, to further encourage homeowners to remove ice and snow from sidewalks, the Illinois General Assembly enacted 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 amount to willful and wanton behavior, as opposed to simply negligent behavior. In other words, such a homeowner’s actions would need to be more than simply careless; the actions would need to rise to the level of an utter indifference to, or conscious disregard for, the safety of others.
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 man-made. Unnatural accumulation can include negligent 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. Next, the claimant must show that it was the unnatural condition, and not some other natural condition, that caused the injury. Lastly, the claimant must show that the owner would not reasonably expect visitors 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 under certain circumstances. The hope is that everyone can safely enjoy the snow and ice of the winter months as we wait for spring to come.
By: Matthew J. Healy &
Brendan J. Dailey