by Alan L. Pepicelli
I. GENERAL RULE:
Our Courts do not impose an unreasonable duty upon a land owner to keep its sidewalks completely free from ice and snow. This rule is based upon practical considerations that it would be unfair to impose an impossible burden upon property owners, in view of the climatic conditions in Pennsylvania during the winter. Land owners are not absolute guarantors of the safety of persons upon their property, and in order to be held liable, it must be shown that an injury was caused as the result of a defective condition; that the land owner had notice of such condition; and had a reasonable opportunity to correct the condition prior to the injury. Actual notice is not required, and a land owner may be held liable if, given the particular situation, he "should have known" of the dangerous condition.
Because of the fact that snow and ice create transient danger upon sidewalks, the only duty upon a land owner is to remove the snow and ice within a reasonable period of time after he knew or should have known that the condition has become dangerous.
II. CONDITIONS CREATING LIABILITY:
A. Hills and Ridges
In Pennsylvania, a land owner will be held liable for injuries sustained upon his property, where snow and ice has accumulated upon a sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and as to constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling thereon. The "Hills and Ridges" doctrine is a common sense rule based upon the inference that a development of "hills and ridges" occurs over a period of time during which a land owner would have had a reasonable opportunity to have eliminated the danger.
For instance, Paul, while walking along a sidewalk on David's property during a period of freezing rain slips on David's sidewalk and is serious injured. The evidence shows that, at the time of the fall, slippery conditions existed throughout the entire community and Paul was aware, himself, of the dangers associated with such conditions. Because of the fact that David did not have a reasonable opportunity to have prevented such condition, David will not be held liable for Paul's injury. If, however, the evidence had shown that at the time of Paul's fall, ice and snow had been permitted to accumulate, thus giving David a reasonable opportunity to have eliminated the dangers caused thereby, David may be held liable for Paul's injury.
B. Conditions caused by land owner's conduct
A land owner may be held liable where ice is localized and where no general slippery conditions exist in the community, or where an icy condition is caused by the land owner's own conduct or neglect. As an example, on a relatively clear winter afternoon, Patricia, after having visited with Danielle, is walking down Danielle's steps, and without warning, encounters a sheet of ice, causing her to fall and to sustain a fractured shoulder. The evidence shows that, although the sidewalks throughout the general area were clear, and while it had not rained or snowed for days prior to the incident, Danielle had permitted her gutter above the steps to overflow and/or leak, thereby causing an unnatural accumulation of freezing water to exist upon the steps. The evidence further showed that Danielle had been aware of this condition and had failed to correct the same prior to the incident. Danielle may be held liable for Patricia's injury. Similar situations may relate to defective hydrant's, water pipes, drains, or other unnatural accumulations of water upon walkways and pedestrian thoroughfares.
C. Violation of City Ordinance
Under certain circumstances, municipal ordinances may require duties upon land owners, not otherwise existing under the law. For instance, the Ordinances of the City of Meadville specifically require property owners within the city, whether occupied or unoccupied, to keep sidewalks abutting public streets free from snow and ice in accordance with specific time limitations depending upon where the sidewalks are situate. In certain areas snow and ice is required to be removed from sidewalks within one business hour after the cessation of the fall of snow, sleet or freezing rain, or by 9:00 the next business day, whichever is shorter. In other areas snow, sleet and freezing rain is required to be removed within the same day, or within the first five hours of daylight thereafter. Moreover, by separate ordinance, land owners are precluded from allowing water from roofs, eaves, or spouting to run over, drip or flow upon any city sidewalks.
Winters in northwest Pennsylvania create harsh and dangerous conditions, and it is important for each of us as land owners, to exercise all reasonable precautions to prevent injury to others. Similarly, pedestrians must exercise sufficient precautions for their own safety by wearing appropriate footwear and by choosing the safest path under the circumstances. As with any injury case, the best rule is prevention. Remember to stay warm and have a safe and happy winter.