Attorneys: Johnson, Nicholas

Related Practices: Premises Liability    Real Estate

June 5, 2014

Waukegan, Illinois
Generally, if a person slips and falls on a natural accumulation of snow or ice the property owner is not liable for any injuries. However, if there is an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice, then the property owner may be liable for injuries. Recently the Second Appellate District reviewed the general rules regarding ice and snow and the applicability of the Snow and Ice Removal Act (Act), 745 ILCS 75/1 et. seq. (West 2012). The Act affords property owners immunity from liability if the owner removes or attempts to remove snow or ice from sidewalks, unless the actions of the owner are willful and wanton.
In Ryan v. Glen Ellyn Raintree Condominium Association, 2014 Ill. App. 2d 13068 (April 11, 2014), the Court reviewed the applicability of the Act’s immunity to unnatural accumulations of snow or ice caused by alleged design defects. In Ryan, the plaintiff alleged that a defect or an improperly maintained roof, gutter, or downspout caused an unnatural accumulation of ice and snow. Based on the existence of an unnatural accumulation, the plaintiff alleged that the homeowner was liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
The defendant, citing the Act, moved for summary judgment because the plaintiff alleged that the defendant attempted to remove the snow and ice; thus, the defendant had immunity and whether there existed a design defect that caused the unnatural accumulation was collateral to the immunities provided by the Act. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant attempted to remedy the unnatural accumulation and failed to do so properly. The Court agreed with the defendant that the Act applied because the plaintiff attributed her fall to the consequences of the defendant’s failed snow and ice removal efforts. Therefore, the Act was prima facie in its application and immunity was available to the defendant.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the Act did not apply if the snow or ice was caused by an unnatural accumulation of snow and ice. The Court considered the purposes behind the Act and determined the Act applied to unnatural accumulation even if the unnatural accumulations were caused by design defects in the structures near the unnatural accumulation.
The Court recognized two scenarios. In the first scenario, there is an active cause of the unnatural ice accumulation. For example, when a property owner clears a sidewalk by shoveling snow into banks alongside the walk and the snow subsequently melts and forms ice across the surface. In the second scenario, the owner is passive with regards to the formation of the ice, for example, ice formed from a dripping defective roof. The Court recognized that in the first scenario the efforts of snow and ice removal are both the alleged basis of liability and the grounds for the immunity. In the second scenario, liability is based on omission. The Court concluded that the Act’s immunity is available when the property owner actively removed or attempted to remove the snow or ice from the sidewalk regardless of whether the snow or ice accumulation was natural or unnatural as in the first scenario. The Court also ruled that a property owner who remains entirely inactive in the face of unnatural snow or ice accumulation cannot avail himself of the Act for an injury caused by that accumulation, as in the second scenario. Ultimately, the Court ruled that an active homeowner may invoke the Act’s immunity, while an inactive homeowner cannot, regardless of how the snow and ice accumulated.
The holding of this case is significant. Many property owners and businesses have mistakenly read the Act to mean that efforts to remove snow and ice should not be made, as the removal effort itself, if done incorrectly, would be the trigger of liability. Rather, the opposite is true. Removal efforts will trigger the potential immunity under the Act. Indeed, the existence of an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice is not the end of the analysis applicable to these types of cases. The mere existence of unnatural accumulation of snow or ice is only the first step. Once there is a determination of whether there is an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice, if the property owner attempted to remedy the situation, but failed, the Act will allow immunity. The existence of a defect causing unnatural accumulation is no longer enough to survive a dispositive motion.
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Nicholas Johnson focuses his practice on construction law, construction litigation, business litigation, auto liability, commercial litigation, and property litigation.  Mr. Johnson has obtained summary judgments on behalf of multiple clients and has tried numerous cases before juries to verdict with favorable results in each case.
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