16509454825_080e079fe9_zIllinois law provides that any owner, lessor, occupant or other person in charge of residential property who “removes or attempts to remove snow or ice” from sidewalks is immunized from negligence claims arising from his or her acts or omissions absent a showing of willful or wanton conduct. 745 ILCS 75/0.01. So does that mean that property owners are immunized from liability for unnatural conditions of snow and ice created by the design or conditions of the property? In early December, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the answer was “no,” affirming in Murphy-Hylton v. Lieberman Management Services, Inc. Our summary of the facts and underlying court decisions is here.

The defendants were the owner and manager of a condominium development. In February 2011, a heavy snow struck northern Illinois. The snow removal and landscaping service hired by the condominium association cleared snow and ice from the sidewalks in the complex on February 7. On the morning of February 18, the plaintiff slipped and fell on a sidewalk in the development, sustaining serious injuries. In her operative complaint, she alleged that the defendants were negligent in failing to properly direct the drainage of water and melted snow, failing to repair defective sidewalks, and failing to repair downspouts to prevent an unnatural accumulation of ice on the sidewalk. She also alleged that the defendants had failed to comply with various building construction and maintenance codes. During discovery, the plaintiff testified that she believed that water would run from the downspouts on either side of the building onto the grass and collect on the sidewalk, where it would freeze instead of draining onto the sidewalk.

Defendants filed a joint motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the Snow and Ice Removal Act. Citing Ryan v. Glen Ellyn Raintree Condominium Association, the trial court construed the immunity to apply any and all claims for negligence arising out of a defective condition on the property or negligent maintenance of the premises. Division One of the First District reversed the summary judgment on the basis that the immunity did not extend to the plaintiff’s claims.

In an opinion by Justice Theis, a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court. The Court began by outlining the original state of the common law, before the passage of the Snow and Ice Removal Act. The common law rule is that landowners owe no duty to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice, but do owe a duty to prevent unnatural accumulations where they have actual or constructive knowledge of the condition. The problem with such liability, however, was that it encouraged inaction – just leaving all the snow exactly where it fell. In 1979, the General Assembly addressed that problem by passing the Act. The legislature declared the public policy of Illinois to be 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.”

The court held that nothing in the plain language of the Act suggested an intent to immunize liability for accumulations of ice resulting from “circumstances unrelated to negligent snow and ice removal efforts.” The broad construction of the Act urged the defendants, on the other hand, “would reward a landowner’s passivity in failing to exercise due care in maintaining his property in a reasonably safe condition.” Because the plaintiffs were not alleging that the defendants negligently undertook to remove a natural accumulation of snow, the Act did not apply. The defendants argued that a contract for snow and ice removal was by itself prima facie evidence of having undertaken efforts to clear snow and ice, but the Court disagreed. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had negligently maintained the premises due to a defective condition on the property.

Since the Snow and Ice Removal Act wasn’t applicable, the Court found that there was no basis for barring the plaintiff’s claim. Accordingly, the lower court was affirmed.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Eneko Muino (no changes).