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The Hills and Ridges Doctrine in Most Cases Doesn’t Apply to Freezing Rain

June 1, 2017

Defense Digest, Vol. 23, No. 2, June 2017

By LaTi W. Spence, Esq.*

Key Points:

  • Hills and Ridges Doctrine protects owner/occupier from liability from generally slippery conditions resulting from ice and snow where ice and snow have not been permitted to unreasonably accululate in hills and ridges.
  • Freezing rain alone does not permit recovery against owner/occupier.

 

The quintessential doctrine, the Hills and Ridges Doctrine, that finds most insurance defense attorneys who defend landowners on their heels, has an end. In its most basic reading, the Hills and Ridges Doctrine precludes liability in instances where there is an ongoing storm involving freezing rain. Nonetheless, plaintiffs’ attorneys are still bringing cases with facts involving freezing rain and no prior accumulation. Unfortunately, adjusters are not being properly advised that the law deems these cases losers. Attorneys can now more confidently advise their adjusters that, while settlement may be appropriate for other reasons, Philadelphia now has a case that specifically outlines that freezing rain alone does not permit recovery against an owner/occupier.

In the very recent case of Hung v. Parkway Corporation, 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 99 (C.P.Phil. Feb. 13, 2017), the court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and rejected the plaintiffs’ reliance on the Hills and Ridges Doctrine. The plaintiff, Su Hung, allegedly slipped and fell on the defendant’s sidewalk. As is always the case, the plaintiff pursued her claim under to the governing law in Pennsylvania related to slip and falls due to icy conditions, the Hills and Ridges Doctrine.

By way of brief background, this doctrine requires the following:

(1) The snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct a danger to pedestrians travelling thereon; (2) that the property owner had notice, either actual or constructive, of the existence of such condition; (3) that it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice which caused plaintiff to fall.

Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623, 625 (Pa. 1962).

Additionally, this doctrine also makes clear that general slippery conditions alone are not sufficient to successfully establish liability. “There is no liability created by a general slippery condition on sidewalks. It must appear that there were dangerous conditions due to ridges or elevations which were allowed to remain for an unreasonable length of time or were created by defendant’s antecedent of negligence.” Lascoskie v. Berks County Trust Company, 208 A.2d 463, 464-465 (Pa. 1965). That is, where there has been accumulation over a period of time that was left unattended, a landowner may not escape liability.

In Hung, the plaintiff alleged that, at approximately 7:00 a.m., she left her home to head to work and was at 8th and Arch Streets at around 8:00 a.m. As she walked towards the curb ramp from Arch Street to the sidewalk, she took two steps, slipped and fell. The accident resulted in the plaintiff severely injuring her ankle, which required two surgeries. On the day of the accident, the temperature ranged from 27°F to 37°F. Obviously, each party’s expert varied as to the exact degree. The plaintiff’s expert opined that there was no accumulation but there was intermittent light snow beginning at 4:52 a.m. that morning. Contrary to that, the defendant’s expert opined that there was light freezing rain, which began at 7:00 a.m., and the intensity of the freezing rain increased at around 8:00 a.m. and continued through 11:00 a.m. The court found that, although there were some discrepancies given the exact type of precipitation, “[t]he exact nature of the precipitation does not matter under Pennsylvania law.”

Even though there was, in fact, general slippery conditions for which the Hills and Ridges Doctrine would be applicable, the court still found that the plaintiff could not establish liability against the defendant. The facts supported that the plaintiff fell on “[s]mooth, mirror-like ice, not a hill or ridge of snow and ice, thus Plaintiff-Appellant cannot establish breach of a duty by Defendant-Appellee (sic).”

When you pair the reading held in Hung with Philadelphia Ordinance §10-720, you are left with a strong position as to why defendants cannot be held liable under the law. The Philadelphia ordinance specifically addresses snow and not freezing rain or precipitation. The ordinance reads, “ The owner, agent and tenants of any building or premises shall clear a path of not less than 36 inches in width on all sidewalks abutting the building or premises within 6 hours after the snow has ceased to fall.” Phil. Ordinance §10-720.

Thus, homeowners should be protected in cases involving only freezing rain conditions. First, because the basic reading of the Hills and Ridges Doctrine requires accumulation. Next, in circumstances where there is only freezing rain for a brief period of time prior to the alleged fall, liability is unlikely pursuant to the doctrine and Philadelphia Ordinance §10-720. Therefore, adjusters should remain committed to defend cases where the facts simply don’t support liability.

*LaTi is an associate in our Philadelphia, Pennsylvania office who can be reached at 215.575.2596 or lwspence@mdwcg.com.

 

Defense Digest, Vol. 23, No. 2, June 2017. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2017 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact tamontemuro@mdwcg.com.

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