Ice and Snow Injuries and the Partial Immunity of Land Owners
The Illinois Supreme Court has recently ruled on a case that could shed some light on the duties and responsibilities of landowners during this frigid weather and the recent snowfall. The case, Murphy-Hylton v. Lieberman Management Services, Inc., distinguishes the duties of landlords for snow and ice removal. Historically, landowners have no duty to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice. However, landowners do owe a duty of reasonable care to prevent unnatural accumulations of ice and snow on their premises where they have actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition.
Normally, plaintiffs had brought these negligence claims under two different theories. The first being when there was a defective condition of the property or negligent maintenance of that property, and the second being when the landowner voluntarily undertook efforts to remove snow or ice and due to this effort an injury occurred. However, being that one could be sued for taking action and causing an injury, the fear of litigation led many landowners and landlords to refrain from attempting to remove snow or ice from their property. This inactivity led to the Snow and Ice Removal Act of 1979.
This Act gave immunity to any landowner where injury occurred due to their snow or ice removal efforts (unless those acts were willful or wanton). However, many courts in Illinois were split as to whether this Act also gave immunity to landowners for ice and snow injuries that occurred due to other causes, such as property or maintenance issues.
Murphy-Hylton cleared up this confusion by focusing on the intent of the legislators when enacting this Act and reading the specific wording of the legislation:
"It is declared to be the public policy of this State that owners and others residing in residential units be encouraged to clean the sidewalks abutting their residences of snow and ice. The General Assembly, therefore, determines that it is undesirable for any person to be found liable for damages due to his or her efforts in the removal of snow or ice from such sidewalks, except for acts which amount to clear wrongdoing." (745 ILCS 75/1).
In applying this wording, the Supreme Court found that landowners cannot be liable for injuries and are immune from suits that arise out of their efforts to remove ice and snow. However, nowhere in the Act did the court find immunity for injuries or falls on accumulations of ice or snow that are due to circumstances unrelated to snow or ice removal. A prime example of this would be where there are dips in parking lots or sidewalks (that the landowner knows about) where water accumulates and freezes and then causes a slip and fall.
A landowner always has the duty to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition. The accumulation of snow or ice does not remove this duty. The Snow and Ice Removal Act's purpose was to encourage landowners to remove snow and ice and to continue to ensure safe conditions for tenants and guests. It is not meant to remove the landowner's continuing duty to provide a safe environment. This Supreme Court ruling helps to further enforce that duty and gives injured plaintiffs strong authority against those defendants who attempt to claim immunity for their own negligent maintenance of their property.