Among the many different types of cases regularly brought to our personal injury lawyers, slip and fall accidents are some of the most common. This is because slip and fall can be caused by virtually anything, and can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time. Nonetheless, there are certain factors that increase the rate of slip and fall incidents. For example, people aged 65 and older are disproportionately affected by slip and fall, and slip and falls are more likely to occur in the winter, when roads and sidewalks are slick with ice. Zurich, a global insurance company, reports that 25% of their yearly slip and fall claims involve snow and ice.
The potential dangers of winter weather conditions are widely known, and every year, many American cities counter the risks by sprinkling their sidewalks with salt and chemicals which help melt accumulating ice and snow. This preventative measure slashes the risk of winter slip and falls, and saves countless pedestrians from injury or even wrongful death. But if your city doesn’t salt, are they liable for slip and fall? Who is responsible when icy sidewalk slip and fall does occur?
1 in 5 Winter Slip and Fall Accidents Occur on Sidewalks
Every community has a different climate to contend with. Obviously, the maintenance code enforced by the city of Santa Fe is going to look a little different from the maintenance code followed in Buffalo. Nonetheless, many North American towns and cities which experience snowfall during the winter months do observe the practice of salting their sidewalks with rock salt.
Rock salt works for a simple reason: it lowers the freezing point of water (which is also why salt is used in from-scratch ice cream recipes). As a consequence, it becomes more difficult for water to freeze, and what would have hardened into hazardous ice melts into harmless puddles of liquid instead.
Zurich reports that sidewalks are the third most likely location for snow- and ice-related slip and fall accidents to occur, after parking lots/parking garages, and stair and dock areas outside of buildings. In fact, 21% of Zurich’s winter slip and fall claims occur on sidewalks — over one fifth of all incidents. After accidents which occur directly on job sites, sidewalk slip and falls average the highest pay-outs for claimants, with average damages just under $20,000.
In their risk management handbook, Zurich even recommends the following as one of the best practices for minimizing winter slip and falls:
“De-icing or traction materials such as cinders, sand, etc. should be used where ice and snow accumulations require additional melting or additional traction is needed for pedestrian or vehicle safety.”
While widespread, this practice is not enforced by federal law. This means that each jurisdiction is left to its own discretion when deciding to salt or not to salt — which means in turn that some communities salt insufficiently, or don’t salt at all. So if a slip and fall accident occurs on an improperly salted sidewalk, who assumes the premises liability?
Who is Liable for Icy Sidewalk Slip and Falls?
The short answer to this question is: it depends.
For example, if you fell on somebody’s personal property, the homeowner could assume liability, because the owners of a property are responsible for its maintenance. However, homeowners insurance is designed for just this type of situation. In Pennsylvania, homeowners liability insurance protects insurees against personal injury claims resulting from property negligence. In these cases, proving liability can be a challenge. Attorney Stephen Ringkamp says, “If you have the wherewithal to shovel your snow off a public sidewalk or off the steps, you don’t want people to get hurt. Do your best, and if you’ve done your best, the law’s not going to hold it against you.”
Nelson Miller, a professor at Michigan’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, agrees. “Natural accumulation of snow and ice,” says Miller, “the landowner doesn’t have any liability if someone encounters it and is injured.”
However, Ringkamp also adds that if a homeowner causes hazardous conditions, proving liability becomes easier. “If they create a hazard that doesn’t ordinarily exist by virtue of snow and ice,” Ringkamp says, citing spraying or dumping water as an example, “then they can have some liability.”
When it comes to slip and fall accidents on the sidewalks of residential properties, it’s important to understand where the culpability really lies. If your slip and fall accident occurred on a rental property, the tenants themselves would not be considered liable because renters are not responsible for issues of maintenance and ownership. Instead of engaging with the tenants, you should focus on the landlord or real estate company which manages the building.
If your slip and fall occurs on residential property, it can be difficult to prove the homeowner or property owner was at fault. However, businesses are held to more stringent safety standards — particularly regarding the use of rock salt. Ringkamp says:
“Melt and refreeze is something business owners should know is going to happen. So you throw some salt down. Solves the problem. If you don’t throw the salt down, you’re going to be responsible, and you should be because you’re trying to get people into your place of business. That’s called ‘invitee’ law.”
In some cities, legislators are pushing for increased sidewalk safety initiatives. In NYC, City Councilman David Greenfield is proposing a law which would allow public workers to shovel residential sidewalks with hazardous accumulations of snow and ice. The property owners would then be billed $250 or more, depending on the size of the property. Greenfield says, “This winter has made it clear that the current law does not provide enough motivation for many property owners to do the right thing. My law would increase the fine against those who flout this important responsibility, while also achieving the goal of making sure that every inch of sidewalk in New York City is safe and passable.”
In Philadelphia, some regulations from the city’s property maintenance code include:
- “All exterior stairways and fire escapes shall be kept free of snow and ice.” (PM-602.5)
- “The owner of a private parking lot shall not… Cause or permit the shoveling, plowing or otherwise moving of snow from the private parking lot onto any street or sidewalk.” (PM-313.4)
If you or a loved one has been injured by slip and fall accident caused by snow or ice, you may have a premises liability case. To schedule a free evaluation with an experienced personal injury attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.