Snow and ice are a fact of life in Chicago during the winter months. So what duties of care do government agencies, individuals and businesses have in relation to dealing with winter conditions? The Illinois Supreme Court addressed this important issue late last week in Krywin v. The Chicago Transit Authority [pdf].

Illinois has long followed the "natural accumulations rule": a landowner or possessor of real property has no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice, snow or water from its property. But it’s equally true that because mass transit agencies are "common carriers" under the law, they have a duty to their passengers to exercise the highest degree of care, not only to carry them safely to their destinations, but to provide them with a reasonable opportunity to leave the conveyance safely.

So does the natural accumulations rule apply to mass transit? In Krywin, a divided Supreme Court answered "yes."

Krywin arose from a 2005 accident, when plaintiff slipped on an icy subway platform owned by the Chicago Transit Authority. Plaintiff sued the CTA in a two-count complaint, alleging negligence and willful and wanton conduct. The trial court allowed a limited version of plaintiff’s theory to go to the jury, and the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff. The Appellate Court reversed.

Before the Supreme Court, Krywin argued that the natural accumulations rule has always been based on the proposition that it is unfair and unrealistic to require municipalities and businesses to remove snow and ice on an ongoing basis while a storm continues. The Court disagreed, finding that the rule applies regardless of whether a storm is in progress, or how long a natural accumulation has existed. The Court concluded that the natural accumulation rule should apply to plaintiff’s claim:

CTA had no duty to remove the natural accumulation of ice and snow from its platform, nor any duty to warn of the existence of such natural accumulation.

Plaintiff’s fallback argument was that even if the natural accumulations rule applied to common carriers, the CTA could have met its duty to provide a safe place to alight by stopping under the canopy which covered less than half of the platform. The Court disagreed, finding that it was impractical to require the CTA to evaluate each platform each time a train pulled in to determine what portions of the platform, if any, were the most free of snow and ice.

Justice Freeman dissented, with Justice Kilbride joining. Justice Freeman argued that because the Illinois Legislature had codified the natural accumulations rule in the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/3-105, but had specifically excluded the CTA from the Act, 745 ILCS 10/2-101(b), the Legislature intended that the natural accumulations rule not apply to the CTA.

Justice Freeman also argued that the majority’s holding was contrary not only to the Court’s earlier authorities, but also to the weight of authority in foreign jurisdictions. Pointing to decisions of the Alaska and Michigan Supreme Courts, as well as Section 343 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, Justice Freeman argued that the weight of authority around the country rejected the natural accumulations rule. "I would hold that a common carrier’s standard of care trumps the natural accumulation rule," Justice Freeman wrote, arguing that the CTA should be required to warn passengers of icy platforms, and "a jury would have to decide whether the parties acted reasonably."

Ironically, the "take-away" from Krywin comes from Justice Freeman’s dissent. "[I]n northern climates, like ours, where ice and snow are a fact of life, people are aware of the hazards posed by such conditions, and it is impractical to require property owners and carriers to remove snow and ice." The Court’s decision in Krywin provides a needed dose of common sense for defense counsel to fight suits arising from the difficult winter weather that is a "fact of life" here in Chicago.