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Does a Contract Between a Business and a Snow Removal Company Create a Duty to Protect Customers from Natural Accumulations of Snow and Ice?

During an Illinois winter, it is common for snow and ice to accumulate in parking lots and on sidewalks and access ramps. These slippery conditions can be dangerous, and they sometimes lead to serious injuries. In the case of Jordan v. The Kroger Co. d/b/a/ Food 4 Less and Pete’s Lawn Care, Inc., the Illinois Appellate Court addresses whether property owners and contractors are responsible when third-party beneficiaries of a snow removal contract (such as a business’s customers) suffer serious injuries as a result of natural snow and ice accumulations

The Facts

At around 4:00 p.m. on November 12, 2013, Ms. Jordan visited a Chicago Food 4 Less store. While walking up an access ramp near the grocery store entrance, she slipped and fell on black ice. As a result of the fall, she displaced three bones in her ankle and required surgery. When interviewed, Ms. Jordan said that she did not see any ice on the ramp prior to her fall, though she saw and felt it afterwards. Weather reports show that the temperature was below freezing at the time of the incident, and the area had experienced light precipitation the previous day. Pete’s Lawn Care Inc., the company tasked with Food 4 Less’s snow and ice removal, stated that it did not perform any services at the store on the day of or in the days prior to Ms. Jordan’s fall.

The Food 4 Less store had an ice removal contract with Cherry Logistics, who subcontracted the work to Pete’s Lawn Care. Ms. Jordan acknowledged that she had never heard of either company. Through its contract with Cherry Logistics, Pete’s Lawn Care agreed to keep the Food 4 Less access ramp clear of snow and ice, down to bare pavement, during the store’s business hours.

Ms. Jordan filed a lawsuit against Food 4 Less and Pete’s Lawn Care (but not Cherry Logistics), alleging that both parties were negligent in monitoring weather conditions to determine if snow and ice removal services were necessary. She also alleged that the parties were negligent by not removing snow and ice from the access ramp. Finally, she argued that due to the ice removal contract, the defendants had a duty to remove natural accumulations of ice from the Food 4 Less parking lot for the benefit of customers and other third parties.

The Natural Accumulation Rule

According to Illinois law, property owners who remove snow and ice have a duty to use reasonable care when doing so. However, property owners are not responsible for injuries caused on their property as a result of snow or ice when it naturally accumulates.

Under the natural accumulation rule, property owners do not have a duty remove natural accumulations of snow and ice from their property because it is unrealistic to expect them to remove all snow and ice from all walkways at all times. Therefore, plaintiffs in slip-and-fall cases must prove that they fell on an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice (such as ice caused by a defect at the property). Furthermore, plaintiffs can only prevail in situations where the defendant either knows of the unnatural accumulation or should know of the unnatural accumulation.

The Decision

Pete’s Lawn Care asked the trial court to grant a summary judgment, arguing that the company could not have increased risk by creating an unnatural accumulation of ice since it did not perform services at Food 4 Less prior to Ms. Jordan’s fall. Additionally, Pete’s Lawn Care said that it had no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice from the access ramp. Furthermore, the contractor was not aware of the ice prior to Ms. Jordan’s fall, nor would it have known about the ice had a reasonable inspection been conducted.

In response, Ms. Jordan argued that the contract had been triggered by the presence of ice, therefore the defendants had a duty to remove the ice from the Food 4 Less access ramp. The trial court disagreed and dismissed the case, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove that the contract had been triggered given that Ms. Jordan did not see ice prior to her fall.

Ms. Jordan appealed to the Illinois Appellate ourt. She argued that the trial court made a mistake in granting summary judgment because Pete’s Lawn Care voluntarily accepted a duty to remove natural ice accumulations at Food 4 Less. She also said the court was wrong to find that Pete’s Lawn Care’s contractual ice removal duties had not been triggered.

In reviewing the case, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. The court found that summary judgment was proper due to lack of evidence that the ice on the Food 4 Less access ramp was unnatural. Additionally, the court rejected the third-party breach of contract liability theory because the contractor’s failure to remove ice from the access ramp didn’t increase the risk of harm.  Furthermore, since there is no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice, Pete’s Lawn Care did not undertake a duty in this particular situation. Finally, because Ms. Jordan was unaware of either the snow removal contract or the contracted parties, she couldn’t have relied on the contract.

Because property owners do not have a legal duty to remove natural accumulations of ice and because there was no third-party breach of contract liability, the court did not consider whether the ice removal duties were triggered under the contract between Cherry Logistics and Pete’s Lawn Care.

Conclusion

Property owners and contractors are not responsible for injuries suffered in instances that involve a natural accumulation of snow and ice. In order to be liable, the owner or contractor must create an unnatural accumulation of snow and/or ice that increases risk for parties who are legally on the property. The presence of a snow and ice removal contract does not override the natural accumulation rule unless the specific injured party knows of and relies on that contract. Therefore, plaintiffs are only likely to win slip-and-fall cases in instances where the property owner or contractor’s snow and ice removal practices directly contribute to the fall.

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