SLIPPING OVER HILLS AND RIDGES

By Kevin L. Connors, Esquire

A recent Superior Court Decision, issued on January 31, 2018 is an excellent exposition on the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine, which precludes a finding of liability against property owners, in a slip and fall case, with the Doctrine being a refinement or clarification of the duty owed by a possessor of land applicable to a single type of dangerous condition, that being the presence of either snow or ice.

In order to recover for a fall on an ice or snow covered surface, the Plaintiff must produce evidence that the snow or ice that had accumulated on sidewalks and that the ridges are elevations of such size and character that unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling there upon, requiring proof that the property owner had notice, be it actual or constructive, that the snow or ice was present, and that the snow or ice was a dangerous accumulation which became the factual cause of a Plaintiff falling and being injured.

The protection afforded by the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine is a predicate based upon the assumption that “these formations are natural phenomenon incidental to our climate.”

In the recent case of Collins v. Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation, the Plaintiff’s lawsuit was dismissed, after the Trial Court granted summary judgment in the favor of the Defendant, on the basis that the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine precluded a finding of liability.

Not surprisingly, the Plaintiff appealed the granting of summary judgment, with facts always being relevant.

The critical fact in Collins v. PSDCwas that the Plaintiff testified, during his deposition, that snow had been falling from early morning until the time of his fall (early afternoon) as there was a blizzard occurring, with snow falling and accumulating on the ground over a number of hours.

Other witnesses in the case also confirmed that it had been snowing on the day of the Plaintiff’s fall, and that the weather conditions resulted in it taking a long time for the ambulance to arrive to remove the Plaintiff.

Other witnesses testified that it was a very snowy day, and that the office where the Plaintiff worked actually closed early.

Moreover, there was a security video of the parking lot where the Plaintiff fell, showing that it was snowing at the time the Plaintiff actually fell.

In the Plaintiff’s appeal, the Plaintiff attempted to argue that there was no evidence that the PSDC had made any attempts to have the premises pretreated with de-icing chemicals, prior to the beginning of the forecasted snowstorm, with the Plaintiff having an expert who had opined that such pretreatment would have resulted in a much safer environment for the Plaintiff.

On that basis, the Plaintiff argued that there was a triable fact as to whether the PSDC had a duty to pretreat the area where the Plaintiff fell and was injured.

The Plaintiff also attempted to argue that a ramp, which the Plaintiff tripped over, that had been hidden by snow mounds, may have been a defective or dangerous condition that would preclude the application of the Hills and Ridges Doctrine.

Expostulating on the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine, the Court ruled that the Doctrine requires that an owner or occupier of land, after notice of a dangerous condition of either hills and ridges of natural accumulation of snow or ice, must act within a reasonable amount of time to eliminate the dangerous condition.

For a plaintiff to prevail against a defendant in a fall on snow or ice, a plaintiff must prove that a reasonable amount of time had elapsed between the notice of the dangerous condition of natural accumulations of snow or ice, in the form of hills and ridges, and the onset of the duty to eliminate the hills and ridges.

Finding that the parties in Collins v. PSDC agreed that the Plaintiff fell in the midst of an active blizzard, the Plaintiff could not present any evidence to conclude that a reasonable amount of time had elapsed between notice of the dangerous condition and the beginning of the duty to clear the lot and/or sidewalk.

For the above reasons, the Superior Court agreed with the Trial Court’s reasoning in granting the Motion for Summary Judgment on behalf of PSDC.

It held that there was no factual dispute that the Plaintiff slipped and fell on ice and snow during an active blizzard, and that there were “generally slippery conditions” prevailing in the community, when the Plaintiff’s alleged accident occurred.

Moreover, the Superior Court held that the landowner, PSDC, had no obligation to correct the conditions until a reasonable period of time after the storm had ended. Holding that PSDC had no duty to remove the ice and snow, which began around 8:30 a.m., from the sidewalk when the Plaintiff fell at about 1:30 p.m., in the midst of a blizzard, the Superior Court held that the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine was applicable, and that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Plaintiff could prove an exception to the Hills and Ridges Doctrine, resulting in summary judgment being affirmed.

Take Away

Timing is everything.

So is an active storm.

Climatically speaking, a possessor of land must be given a reasonable period of time to be able to act, to remove snow or ice, after there has been an active storm, when snow or ice accumulates on the possessor of lands’ property.

While there may be factual questions regarding timing issues, notice issues, as well as witness testimony issues, a possessor of land would appear to be insulated from personal injury liability under premises liability principles, during an active snowstorm with snow or ice in the process of accumulating, resulting in an alleged accident with a plaintiff claiming personal injuries.

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Questions concerning tort and/or contract liability that might arise in the context of casualty claims can be directed to Kevin L. Connors at kconnors@connorsodell.com (Phone: 610-524-2100 Ext. 112).