In Pennsylvania, snow and ice accumulation is a fact of life and the time to pull out the snow boots and shovels is quickly approaching. Nearly every season, residents and visitors are likely to encounter the dangers of such conditions, and some may slip-and-fall and injure themselves — perhaps even severely — and depending on the circumstances, the slip-and-fall injury could give rise to a significant, actionable claim for damages under Pennsylvania law.
Let’s take a brief look at the basic rule (the “Hills and Ridges” rule) that applies to such disputes.
Application of the Hills and Ridges Rule
Unlike the courts in warmer weather states, Pennsylvania courts have had to modify the rules of premises liability somewhat to account for the universal injury threat posed by snow and ice conditions during winter months. Simply put, it would not be reasonable for property owners to be held liable for injuries caused by natural snow and ice conditions in most cases, as the imposition of liability would force property owners to invest enormous amounts of money and effort into spotlessly maintaining their properties throughout the season.
The Hills and Ridges rule implemented by Pennsylvania courts attempts to carve out a reasonable “slice” of liability that allows injured claimants to obtain compensation in cases where the defendant has clearly violated a duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition for visitors.
Essentially, the Hills and Ridges rule allows injured plaintiffs to impose liability on the defendant property owner only if:
- Snow and ice accumulated in such a way as to create an unreasonable obstruction to pedestrian traffic;
- The owner knew or should have known about the dangerous accumulation; and
- The dangerous accumulation caused the plaintiff to slip-and-fall and injured themselves.
Perhaps the best example of liability given the application of the Hills and Ridges rule are excessive delays in correcting dangerous snow/ice conditions.
When a natural accumulation first forms — for example, when ice begins to develop on an entryway to a business — the defendant cannot be held liable for slip-and-falls that occur within a short period of time before they have had the opportunity to “fix” the danger. If enough time has passed, however, then the delay may give rise to liability (i.e., an hour or more, for a busy retail outlet). Whether the defendant acted fast enough to avoid liability depends on the circumstances.
Exception for Artificial Accumulations and Conditions
Though the Hills and Ridges rule protects those property owners and possessors from claims for slip-and-fall injuries that occur due to natural accumulations and conditions — such as a mound of recently-accumulated snow on a sidewalk — a rather significant exception applies to artificial accumulations and conditions.
For example, suppose that you are injured in a rather unique slip-and-fall scenario while entering the defendant’s retail store outlet. It is winter, and you are climbing the stairs into the defendant’s business, holding the handrails for stability. It turns out, however, that the defendant did not properly maintain one of the water pipes, and as such, the pipe leaked water onto the handrail, causing it to freeze over and become excessively slippery. Your hand slips on the icy handrail, which lead to you slipping off the stairs and seriously injuring yourself.
Given the circumstances — the water leak was an artificial condition, not a natural one — the defendant would likely be liable for damages.
Obvious Dangers Give Rise to Liability Complications
In nearly all premises liability disputes, defendants cannot generally be held liable for slip-and-fall injuries that occur due to “obvious” hazards — only non-obvious hazards can give rise to liability. For example, if you are aware of the existence of a patch of black ice, but walk over the patch anyways (thus voluntarily encountering the danger and exposing yourself to the risk of injury), then you cannot hold the defendant liable for injuries sustained in the subsequent slip-and-fall incident.
It’s worth noting, however, that when a hazard cannot be reasonably avoided, then it is irrelevant whether it is “obvious” or “non-obvious” — for example, if the defendant has created a single entryway into their building, and the steps are covered in black ice, then you cannot be said to have voluntarily exposed yourself to the risk of injury, as there are no reasonable alternatives for entry. Under such circumstances, you could ostensibly sue and recover damages.
Contact an Experienced Bethlehem Slip and Fall Attorney for a Free Consultation
If you have been injured in a slip-and-fall incident involving snow/ice while moving on or near the defendant’s property, then Pennsylvania law may give you a right to bring a lawsuit against the defendant and secure compensation for your losses. Slip-and-fall liability in the snow and ice context is a bit more complicated than standard premises liability, however, given the natural climate of Pennsylvania — the courts have imposed several rules that make it more difficult for those who have been injured to successfully recover. As such, it’s important that plaintiffs consult with highly-qualified attorneys who have experience litigating such claims in Pennsylvania.
Founding in 1985, Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC is a boutique personal injury litigation firm serving the interests of injured claimants throughout Pennsylvania. We are deeply committed to individualized advocacy, and from the beginning of the client engagement, we keep communication open and transparent — this enables to us to obtain the information necessary to put forth an effective argument, while ensure that our clients are “in the know” and apprised of case developments as litigation proceeds.
Call (610) 882-1717 or submit an online case evaluation form today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with an experienced Bethlehem slip and fall attorney here at Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC.