Wednesday, January 12, was a typical winter day in Illinois, waking up to the treachery overnight rain, turned to ice, turned to snow wreaked on the roads and sidewalks. Pedestrians and motorists alike face the hazards of snow and ice and the potential for personal injury. You might ask, what responsibilities do I have to do my part to clear or remove snow and ice on my property to prevent injury? The answer is that residential property owners have no duty to clear natural accumulations of snow and ice. Next question, do I face a Catch-22 scenario where I’m only responsible if I actually endeavor to remove the snow and ice and someone deems that I did so negligently? Illinois lawmakers considered that when enacting the Illinois Snow and Ice Removal Act of 1979. The Act grants immunity (freedom from legal responsibility) to residential property owners when pedestrians claim injury from negligent snow and/or ice removal efforts. It is designed to encourage residential property owners to follow their good citizen instincts to clear natural accumulations of snow and ice from their walkways and driveways. So, shovel and salt to your heart’s content, your neighbors will thank you.
But, as is pretty typical with the law, that’s not the end of the story. There are facts that will bring the actions of residential property owners under scrutiny and could give rise to liability. For instance, a property owner can create an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice through such things as improperly placed downspouts or changes to the surface grade. The Act does not protect the owner under such circumstances. Interestingly, the Illinois Supreme Court recently settled a difference of opinion between state courts on the application of the Act.
A plaintiff was injured when she slipped and fell on the sidewalk at her condominium complex eleven days after a snow removal service hired by the condo association cleared the sidewalks. She claimed the ice was formed due to unnatural conditions from downspout drainage and defects in the design and maintenance of the property. The trial court ruled the Act barred the suit. The appellate court disagreed and found the Act’s immunity was limited to the consequences of snow removal efforts so the suit could go to trial. The Supreme Court concurred and adopted this narrow view of the Act stating it does not extend to immunize owners from claims of liability from injuries allegedly caused by icy sidewalks which result from an otherwise negligent failure to maintain the premises. Murphy-Hylton v. Lieberman Management Services, Inc., 2016 IL 120394 (December 1, 2016). The moral to this story is that residential property owners must be mindful of conditions and defects on their property that magnify the perils of our beloved Illinois winters.
Laird M. Ozmon