Are Property Owners and Contractors Responsible for Injuries Caused by Improper Snowplowing?
Because Illinois winters include significant snow and ice accumulation, many property owners hire contractors to perform snow removal services in their parking lots. Even so, slippery conditions may persist and can lead to injuries. In the case of Hornacek v. 5th Avenue Property Management, John Brannen, Lawrence Brannen, Linda Marks, The Brannen Family Partnership, and Eric Rice, Individually, and d/b/a ET Snow Removal & Lawn, the Illinois Appellate Court addresses the conditions under which property owners and snow removal contractors are responsible for injuries caused by an unnatural accumulation of ice in a business parking lot.
In the Hornacek case, Ms. Hornacek was injured when she slipped on ice that had accumulated in the parking lot of a building located at 1402-1418 West 55th Street, Countryside, Illinois. The building was owned, managed, and maintained by 5th Avenue Property Management, who contracted Mr. Rice to perform snow removal. As part of his snow removal operations, he frequently piled snow against the building.
In the early afternoon of January 25, 2007, Ms. Hornacek left her place of employment (Prudential American Homes, located in the building owned by 5th Avenue) and walked toward her car, which was parked in the building’s north lot. She described the parking lot as snowy and slushy. When she was eight to ten feet from her car, she fell on invisible ice. Ms. Hornacek stated that the ice was clear and blacktop was visible beneath it. Although she did not notice the ice while walking across the lot, she saw and felt it after the fall. When Ms. Hornacek’s coworker, Mr. Hampton, discovered her sitting on an ice flow in the parking lot following the fall, he helped her into his car and took her to the hospital. The owner of Prudential American Homes, Ms. Hampton, was also present and assisted in helping Ms. Hornacek into the car. Mr. Lawler, another employee, observed this and noted that Ms. Hornacek was moaning in pain.
In December of 2006, Mr. Lawler had also fallen on ice in the north parking lot. He testified that the lot had been repaved prior to his fall, which seemed alter the drainage patterns. He also observed that “excessive” piles of snow were sometimes plowed up against the north side of the building. He believed that sun would melt the snow, the water would run into the north parking lot, and then it would freeze.
Both Ms. Hornacek and Mr. Lawler recall that there was sunshine on the day of her fall. Mr. Lawler also observed that the parking lot was “a little wet” due to melting snow, though he couldn’t specifically recall if there was a snow pile against the building on that day. However, Mr. Hampton did recall a snow pile that day. Furthermore, he stated that there was almost always ice in the north lot during the winter months and that Ms. Hornacek had slipped on an ice flow that extended from the snow pile and ran across the lot. Like Mr. Lawler, he believed the ice had been caused by runoff from melting snow that refroze. Ms. Hampton could not recall whether the parking lot was icy on the day in question. When asked if it was her understanding that melting snow had caused ice to form that day, she said “no.”
Ms. Hampton testified that she had complained to 5th Avenue about Mr. Rice piling snow against the building, though she could not recall if her complaints specifically mentioned ice in the north parking lot. Furthermore, Mr. Hampton said he had spoken to Mr. Brannen of 5th Avenue Management the previous winter regarding the snowplowing problems and had specifically asked Mr. Brannen to talk with Mr. Rice about the issues. However, 5th Avenue claimed that American Prudential Homes had never called attention to any issues with Mr. Rice’s snowplowing
Ms. Hornacek filed a lawsuit against 5th Avenue Property Management and Mr. Rice, alleging that she suffered injuries as a result of both parties’ negligence. Ms. Hornacek claimed that 5th Avenue had a duty to remove snow and ice from the building and she suffered injuries because the property owner had failed to maintain the north parking lot, failed to remove ice and snow from the lot, failed to remove an unnatural accumulation of snow and/or ice, failed to move snow into a location that would prevent it from melting into the parking lot, improperly removed snow and thus caused it to melt and create an unnatural accumulation of snow and/or ice in the parking lot, improperly diverted melting snow and ice from the building into the lot, and failed to warn of one or more of these conditions. Additionally, she alleged that Mr. Rice was negligent because he failed to remove snow and ice from the north parking lot, failed to remove an unnatural accumulation of snow and/or ice from the lot, failed to move snow into a location that would prevent it from melting into the lot, improperly removed snow and thus caused it to melt and create an unnatural accumulation of snow and/or ice in the parking lot, improperly diverted melting snow and ice from the building into the lot, and failed to warn of one or more of these dangerous conditions.
Landowner and Contractor Responsibility for Unnatural Accumulations of Snow and Ice
According to Illinois law, property owners who remove snow and ice from their land have a duty to use reasonable care when doing so. They also have a duty to provide a safe route for pedestrians to travel between a parking lot and building. Similarly, snow removal contractors have a duty of reasonable care toward those who are legally on the property (employees, customers, tenants, et cetera). In particular, contractors have a duty not to create or worsen unnatural accumulations of snow and ice.
To demonstrate negligence in a slip-and-fall case, the plaintiff must show that an accumulation of snow and/or ice was created by an unnatural cause. Additionally, the plaintiff must prove that that the property owner either had actual knowledge of the condition or constructive knowledge (the condition would have been discovered it reasonable inspections had been conducted). However, in instances where a defendant creates an unnatural accumulation by acting negligently, there is no need to demonstrate knowledge of the condition.
Despite the evidence Ms. Hornacek presented, both Mr. Rice and 5th Avenue submitted motions for summary judgment.
Mr. Rice argued that he did not breach his duty of reasonable care to Ms. Hornacek because she had not presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that he negligently plowed the parking lot prior to the accident. He also claimed that she did not present adequate evidence to support her claim that she fell on an unnatural accumulation of ice. In response, Ms. Hornacek said that Mr. Rice caused an unnatural accumulation of ice by plowing snow in a way that caused it to melt and then form ice. The trial court disagreed and granted Mr. Rice’s motion.
Like Mr. Rice, 5th Avenue argued that Ms. Hornacek was unable to show that she fell on an unnatural accumulation of ice. Furthermore, 5th Avenue claimed Ms. Hornacek failed to demonstrate that the company had actual or constructive notice of the parking lot conditions. Ms. Hornacek responded by saying that 5th Avenue had actual notice because it was aware of at least one prior fall in the parking lot. Additionally, she argued that 5th Avenue had constructive notice because the conditions in the parking lot had existed for 20 months prior to her fall. 5th Avenue reiterated that it did not have actual or constructive notice and had only received a complaint regarding a fall in a different parking lot. The trial court agreed with 5th Avenue and granted the motion for summary judgment. The case was dismissed.
Ms. Hornacek then appealed to the Illinois Appellate court. She argued that the trial court made a mistake in granting summary judgment because she had presented sufficient evidence to show that she slipped on an unnatural accumulation of ice caused by Mr. Rice’s negligent plowing; she also contended that she sufficiently demonstrated 5th Avenue’s knowledge of parking lot conditions due to complaints, earlier falls, prior unnatural accumulations, and the long-standing unnatural accumulation that existed prior to her fall.
In reviewing the case, the appellate court agreed with Ms. Hornacek and ruled that both summary judgments were improper because the property owner had a duty to provide safe conditions for pedestrians walking between the parking lot and the building. Moreover, the snow removal company had the duty to uphold reasonable care when clearing the parking lot.
The court ruled there was enough evidence to show 5th Avenue could have had knowledge of the dangerous parking lot conditions due to Mr. Hampton’s testimony that he notified Mr. Bannen of the snowplowing issues. Furthermore, the court found that, because of Mr. Hampton’s testimony about the ongoing nature of the issues, there is evidence to show that 5th Avenue should have known about the parking lot conditions.
Similarly, the court agreed that Ms. Hornacek presented sufficient evidence, in the form of Mr. Lawler and Mr. Hampton’s testimonies, to suggest that the ice in the parking lot could have been an unnatural accumulation caused by Mr. Rice’s negligent snowplowing practices. (Because Mr. Rice allegedly caused the unnatural accumulation, it was not necessary to prove that he knew about it or should have known about it.) Therefore, the case should proceed to trial so a jury can consider the facts and determine whether 5th Avenue and/or Mr. Rice acted negligently.
When owners remove snow and ice from their property in Illinois, they are obligated to use reasonable care when doing so. Likewise, contractors have a duty of reasonable care toward those who use the property, so they are obligated to remove snow and ice in a way that avoids hazardous unnatural accumulations. Therefore, property owners and contractors who breach their duty of reasonable care are liable for injuries that occur as a result of unnatural accumulations of snow and ice. Owners and contractors are also responsible when they cause an unnatural accumulation due to negligent snow removal practices, when they know of the dangerous unnatural accumulation, or when they would have discovered dangerous unnatural accumulation during a reasonable property inspection.
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