By Dexter Evans
As we get set for another Illinois winter, hope springs eternal that we will enjoy yet another mild visit from old man winter. The law regarding slip and falls on ice/snow in Illinois is about as certain as its weather. If you are at the shopping mall or grocery and slip and fall on ice or snow, do you have a case? You very well may.
A lot of people have the impression that it is almost impossible to win a case involving injury due to ice or snow in a parking or on someone’s premises. To be sure, snow and ice cases represent a very tricky area of the law and a lot of claims are defeated because of the so-called natural accumulation rule. However, there are often ways to prove your case even if it appears that the rule might apply.
The natural accumulation rule essentially stands for the proposition that a landowner is not liable for injuries on their property due to naturally falling/accumulating ice and/or snow. Some people interpret this as meaning that, if nature put it there, there is no liability. But just because nature put the snow and/or ice there initially does not mean you do not have a claim. Of course, it should be said that every snow and/or ice condition was created by nature. The key question is this: did the property owner, property manager, or snow and ice removal company do something to make the snow and/or ice more dangerous for persons walking on their premises? In other words, did someone make the natural condition become unnatural (i.e. man-made)?
The easiest way to establish an unnatural accumulation case is in “freeze-back” cases. Freeze-back (or freeze-thaw cycle) refers to when snow is piled up and melts as temperatures warm. That melting water has to go somewhere. Think of a scoop of ice cream left on a table. Left in the room, the ice cream will melt and runoff, spreading out from the initial place. That is what happens in freeze-back cases, snow melts and water runs off the pile. When temperatures go below freezing again, the melted water becomes ice. If you slip and fall on ice that occurs because of a snow pile created by someone, you could have a case.
There are other ways in which to establish an unnatural accumulation. For example, if the slope or pitch of the parking lot is unreasonably dangerous and causes water or melting snow to create ice in other portions of the lot, that might be enough to show an unnatural accumulation. Likewise, if melting snow water drips onto a sidewalk from a store’s roof, any ice that forms is likely unnatural. Cases for slip and falls on ice and/or snow in a parking lot, although challenging, are far from impossible to win. I recently settled a case against a supermarket chain for a slip and fall on ice in which the pre-lawsuit offer was $1,000. Through depositions of store employees and the snow removal company, I was able to establish that the ice formed from snow piled by the removal company next to the client’s vehicle. The case went on to settle for far more than the initial offer.
Falls on residential property present even more of a slippery slope. There is a law in Illinois which prohibits liability against a residential owner even for removing snow negligently! As with commercial cases, there are similar exceptions with respect to residential fall cases and a lot of work and investigation can go a long way in proving your case. If you or someone you know slips and fall on a property this winter, don’t take on the insurance company blizzard alone. Speak with a personal injury attorney with knowledge of these types of cases so that you don’t get left out in the cold.