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A New Rule on the “Unnatural Accumulation” of Snow and Ice

By Jennifer L. Morris

As a general rule, Illinois property owners have no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice and snow from their property. Illinois winters, however, have led to countless slip-and-falls, creating an ongoing battle in Illinois courts in differentiating a “natural accumulation” from an “unnatural accumulation.” Essentially, if someone slips and falls on snow or ice that was not shoveled or salted, there is no liability for the property owner. However, courts have consistently found liability for unnatural accumulations where a particular defect in the property (such as a drain or downspout, for instance) causes snow or ice to accumulate in a particular location, or where a property owner (typically via plowing or shoveling) causes snow or ice to accumulate in a particular location. Thus a property owner could face liability where snow or ice accumulated because the owner either aggravated a natural condition or created a new, unnatural condition.

On August 22, 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court issued its opinion in Barber v. G.J. Partners, Inc., resulting in a significant win for defendant property owners. In Barber, following a heavy snow, the defendant gas station had plowed its lot and salted the areas in front of the store. Nevertheless, there were metal plates amongst the concrete, which had snow and ice packed on them from the snow plows and subsequent traffic. Gas station employees would try to remove the snow and put salt or chemicals down. However, they found it impossible to remove the snow completely. The plaintiff slipped and fell while entering a gas station, fracturing her ankle and resulting in multiple surgeries.

The plaintiff filed suit against the gas station alleging that it was negligent in allowing an unnatural accumulation of snow as a result of its snow removal efforts. A jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding damages of nearly $500,000. The defendant appealed, and appellate court ultimately reversed the decision.

In deciding for the defendant property owner, the appellate court noted that salting, shoveling, or applying deicer to a natural accumulation does not transform it into an unnatural one. In fact, the court noted that shoveling and plowing snow-covered parking lots and salting ice-covered sidewalks are “desirable actions in this part of the country during the winter months[,]” and that “rarely can such remedial operations be done perfectly.” Essentially, requiring perfection in snow and ice removal would put an unreasonable burden on property owners in Illinois. Thus, the Barber court set aside the plaintiff’s verdict and entered judgment for the defendant gas station, reaffirming the principles long argued by defendants throughout the state.

Originally published in the Fall 2012 edition of Quinn Quarterly.