In order to encourage property owners to remove snow and ice from their property, the Illinois Legislature enacted the Snow and Ice Removal Act, 745 ILCS 75/1. According to the Act, barring willful or wanton misconduct, property owners are not liable for injuries caused by natural accumulations of snow and ice on their property. But what about when allegedly negligent landscaping or maintenance supposedly caused an ice patch? That’s the issue in Murphy-Hylton v. Lieberman Management Services, Inc., a decision from Division 1 of the First District Appellate Court which the Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to review.
Murphy-Hylton arose in early 2011 when the plaintiff slipped and fell on a small patch of ice on a sidewalk near her condominium unit. She testified that the sidewalk did not appear to be wet at the time of her fall, nor did she see salt anywhere. The plaintiff testified that the only snow she saw at the time of her fall was a 3-4 foot snow bank at the end of the parking lot about 60 feet away. The weather that day was “bright and sunny and cold,” but there had been no precipitation. According to the plaintiff, downspouts on one of the buildings drained in the area of her fall, and water “would kind of accumulate there.” Plaintiff’s brother testified that he had been at the condominium either the day of the accident or the day after, and had noticed that the area of the fall was “puddly, wet.” A neighbor also testified to having fallen in the same area that same day. The neighbor agreed that water from melting snow and ice would tend to drain across the sidewalk and re-freeze, but he wasn’t sure where the ice that caused his fall had come from.
The former property manager testified that although there were areas where water would drain “up against the building,” she was not aware of any drainage or water pooling issues on the sidewalk where plaintiff fell. The property manager at the time of the fall also testified, acknowledging that photographs seemed to show standing water on the sidewalk, but denying that it was a “major pooling issue.”
Defendants moved for summary judgment on four grounds: (1) immunity under the Snow and Ice Removal Act; (2) the defendants had no duty to remove natural accumulations, and the plaintiff had failed to show that the ice where she fell was an unnatural accumulation; (3) lack of defect in the property; and (4) there was no ice present on the day of the fall. While the motion was pending, the plaintiff was granted leave to file a fourth amended complaint, adding claims of inadequate maintenance and negligent landscaping. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion, holding that immunity under the Act was broader than merely allegations of negligent snow or ice removal.
The First District reversed. The Court found that the common law rule that there is no duty for a landowner to remove natural accumulations of ice or snow had a traditional exception when design, construction or maintenance of the premises made the accumulation unnatural – in other words, the landowner is not obligated to protect others from the effects of the elements, but can be held liable for essentially making the risk worse.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the Act was limited to immunity for injuries resulting from unnatural accumulations created by efforts to remove ice and snow. Immunity didn’t attach pursuant to her allegations, plaintiff claimed, because she did not allege that the defendants had made any effort to remove the ice on which she fell; instead, she claimed to have fallen on an ice patch created by faulty maintenance and/or drainage planning. The defendants responded that the case was about snow and ice removal, and the plaintiff was merely trying to circumvent the act. According to the defendants, the immunity under the Act is not affected by any purported defects in the property.
The Appellate Court concluded that immunity under the Act did not extend to cases like plaintiff’s, where the alleged negligence arose from design, construction and maintenance rather than snow and ice removal. The Court declined to follow the decision in Ryan v. Glen Ellyn Raintree Condominium Ass’n, in which the Second District had held that even when defects in the property caused an unnatural accumulation, the owner could still avoid liability by clearing or neutralizing the accumulations prior to an accident. The defendants argued for affirmance on several alternative grounds, but the Appellate Court declined to consider those additional issues, finding that there was no evidence that the trial court had actually decided the defendants’ additional claims.
We expect Murphy-Hylton to be decided this winter.