I hope everyone stayed safe, warm, and had some fun in Blizzard Jonas this past weekend. In light of Blizzard Jonas pounding the Philadelphia area, I thought now would be a good time to discuss the peculiar Pennsylvania “Hills and Ridges Doctrine” which relates to slips and falls on snow and ice.

Snow and ice unfortunately are a part of living in the Northeast region of the country. Along with snow and ice comes the reality that slips, trips, and falls will occur from time to time. A slip and fall on ice can be benign; however, on occasion a fall on ice or snow can result in serious injury such as torn ligaments, broken bones, back injuries, neck injuries, and head injuries which can have long lasting consequences. Even worse, a fall on ice or snow could result in death from severe head trauma or other serious injury. Someone afflicted with a serious injury from a fall on snow and/or ice could face surgery, months of physical therapy and rehabilitation, missed time from work, disability, scarring, enormous medical bills, loss of future income, and long lasting pain, suffering, and mental anguish.

Many slips and falls on snow and ice are preventable through proper maintenance and snow and ice removal procedures. Although the law does not require that one’s property always be free of ice and snow, the law does impose an affirmative duty on property owners, tenants, and/or possessors of land to remove snow and ice from walking surfaces within a reasonable time after notice to remove it. When property owners, tenants, and/or possessors of land fail to timely act and allow the snow and/or ice to accumulate in “ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel” they can be held responsible for any injuries that occur on their property as a result of any slips and falls on snow and ice. Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623, 625-26 (Pa. 1962). These concepts are generally known as the Doctrine of Hills and Ridges.

Whether snow and/or ice has accumulated in “ridges or elevations” to impose liability on an owner or occupier of land is a factual question and will depend on the various facts and circumstances of a particular case. The testimony of witnesses, the injured party, paramedics, and photographs or video of the area in question are often used to establish the existence of “ridges or elevations.” Often weather and/or climatology experts are utilized to ascertain the most recent snow or ice event in relation to the fall. In general, the more time that has elapsed from the snow or ice event to the incident in question, the more likely it is that the snow and/or ice accumulated in “ridges or elevations” to impose liability upon the owner or occupier of land.

It is important to note as well that the Doctrine of Hills and Ridges has no applicability where the accumulation of ice and/or snow results from something other than natural accumulation. For example, a slip and fall on a patch of black ice that exists as a result of an improperly maintained downspout, gutter, roof, or drain does not need to accumulate in “ridges or elevations” before liability is imposed. In that case, a perfectly smooth piece of ice can impose liability. Additionally, the existence of a patch of ice in an area that has been plowed and/or salted by a snow removal contractor may not be the result of an entirely natural accumulation since the condition of the land had been influenced by human intervention; and therefore, the Hills and Ridges Doctrine should not apply.

In light of last week’s blog, “I can’t Sue SEPTA, Can I?”, relating to Commonwealth sovereign immunity, it is also important to note that a governmental entity may be immune from liability for slips and falls on snow and ice on their property regardless of whether the ice and/or snow has accumulated in “ridges or elevations.” Although there is a real estate exception to governmental immunity (including sidewalks and streets), the exception only applies to defects or conditions of the land itself and where the artificial condition or defect of the land causes the injury. In general, liability will not be imposed on a commonwealth governmental entity where the injuries sustained result from the governmental entity or agency’s failure to remove a foreign substance from the real property, including ice and/or snow. However, if the snow and/or ice accumulates on the property as a result of a defect in the property itself, liability may be imposed. Additionally, snow removal contractors and/or subcontractors of a governmental entity may not be afforded the benefit of sovereign immunity. Applicability of the sovereign immunity exception will depend on a number of factors including the type of governmental entity or agency involved, and the specific facts and manner in which the slip and fall on snow and ice occurred.

Goebert Law LLC has the technical expertise, experience, and knowledge to navigate the complexities and nuances of the Doctrine of Hills and Ridges, its applicability, as well as the applicability of governmental immunity. Goebert Law LLC also maintains relationships with weather experts, meteorologist, engineers, and other experts to assist in analyzing complex weather data and factual circumstances which can be used as evidence in court. If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of a slip and fall on snow and/or ice, it is important that you have your case evaluated by an experienced attorney. The amount of time you have to pursue a claim is limited by law, and, it is therefore important that you act expeditiously. Please contact Goebert Law LLC for a free consultation and evaluation of any claim you may wish to pursue for a fall on snow and/or ice.