The Hills and Ridges Doctrine: A Property Owner’s Best Friend When Conditions Get Slippery
With the arrival of spring and winter in the history books, property owners will be braced for another round of lawsuits alleging slip and falls on snow and ice. In Pennsylvania, however, the “hills and ridges” doctrine imposes a heightened burden on a plaintiff who slips and falls on snow and ice, and it can even insulate a property owner from liability altogether. Biernacki v. Presque Isle Condominiums Unit Owners Ass’n, Inc., 828 A.2d 1114, 1117 (Pa. Super. 2003).
Generally, in order for a plaintiff to recover for a fall on a snow- or ice-covered surface, the plaintiff must prove that: (1) snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians; (2) the landowner had either actual or constructive notice of the condition; and (3) it was the dangerous accumulation of snow or ice which caused the plaintiff to fall. Morin v. Traveler’s Rest Motel, Inc., 704 A.2d 1085, 1087-1088 (Pa. Super. 1997).
The “hills and ridges” doctrine protects a property owner from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from snow or ice where the property owner has not permitted the snow or ice to unreasonably accumulate in ridges and elevations. Morin, 704 A.2d at 1087-1088. However, what if a winter storm passes through and drops a considerable amount of snow and ice on a landowner’s property? If a pedestrian slips and falls on that fresh snow and ice, will the property owner be held liable? Under the “hills and ridges” doctrine, a property owner will not be held liable for general slippery conditions when these conditions prevail in the community. Tonik v. Apex, 275 A.2d 296, 298 (Pa. 1971).
Further, under the “hills and ridges” doctrine, property owners are specifically not obligated to plow, salt or shovel their property until a reasonable time after the snowstorm has ended. Collins v. Philadelphia Suburban Dev. Corp., 179 A.3d 69, 75 (Pa. Super. 2018). In other words, under the “hills and ridges” doctrine, there is no duty to remove the snow and ice while the snowstorm is still active. Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623, 625 (Pa. 1962). Pennsylvania courts have made clear that there is no absolute duty on property owners to keep their properties completely free of snow and ice at all times. In one instance, the court found it was not reasonable to require a property owner to remove snow and ice from its parking lot by 7:45 a.m., when it had only begun to fall the night before. Biernacki, 828 A.2d at 1117.
What if the property owner, or a snowplow company on behalf of the property owner, plows, salts, shovels or otherwise intervenes to remove snow and ice while the snowstorm is still active? Will the property owner or snowplow company lose the protections afforded under the “hills and ridges” doctrine? No. When a property owner, or a snowplow company on behalf of the property owner, takes steps to remove snow and ice during the course of a snowstorm, the property owner or snowplow company does not lose those protections. Moreover, when there is snowfall immediately prior to a slip and fall on snow and ice, intervention through plowing, salting or shoveling does not bar the application of the “hills and ridges” doctrine. Beck v. Holly Tree Homeowners Ass’n, 689 F. Supp. 2d 756, 765 (E.D. Pa. 2010). Additionally, in the absence of a claim grounded in contract, a snowplow company is protected by the “hills and ridges” doctrine to the same degree as the property owner. Biernacki, 828 A.2d. at 1117.
Lastly, when there is evidence of rain on the date of a slip and fall and temperature change leads to an accumulation of ice, the “hills and ridges” doctrine is triggered even in the absence of snow. Beck v. Holly Tree Homeowners Ass’n, 689 F. Supp. 2d 756, 765 (E.D. Pa. 2010). In one such instance, the court held there would be no liability imposed on the owner of a parking lot which had icy patches in some areas of the lot where other areas of the lot were free of ice. Carrender v. Fitterer, 469 A.2d 120, 124-125 (Pa. 1983).
*Christian is an associate in our Philadelphia, Pennsylvania office. He can be reached at 215.575.2737 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Defense Digest, Vol. 27, No. 3, June 2021 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. © 2021 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 email@example.com.