Winter brings cold temperatures, snow and ice. Winter is the time of year that requires business owners to remove the snow and ice from their property. Even the most diligent of property owners can be faced with the dreaded lawsuit that is filed by the customer that falls on ice or snow. What duty does the law impose to the property owner, tenant or snow removal company?
The New Jersey Appellate Division in an unpublished decision recently discussed the responsibility when a patron slips and falls on ice. In Cavaliere vs. Bridgewater Commons Mall, II Mrs. Cavaliere broke her ankle when she exited the mall, lost her footing and fell. Seven inches of snow had fallen the day before and there was testimony that ice was on the sidewalk and snow on the overhang near the door. There was also evidence that salt was seen all over the sidewalks and hourly inspections made of the area where the accident occurred. The jury after listening to the testimony found that neither the owner of the mall nor the snow removal company was responsible. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial judge’s charges to the jury which stated that a business property owner has a duty to use reasonable care to make sure that the sidewalks are safe for the public. The mall owner was required to make inspections of its property and to be aware of dangerous conditions that a reasonable inspection would have revealed. The jury apparently found that Ms. Cavaliere did not meet her burden of proof establishing that the mall owners and/or the snow removal company was negligent in removing the snow and ice or that the mall owners knew that a dangerous condition existed.
Would you have correctly guessed the outcome of the Cavaliere case? Would you have thought that Ms. Cavaliere should receive some kind of money to compensate her for the broken ankle; after all Ms. Cavaliere was not responsible to remove the ice on the sidewalk. Slip and fall cases are properly evaluated on their specific set of facts and the legal responsibility the law imposes depends on these facts. With this uncertainty a common sense approach to reduce the chances of responsibility is to consider the following:
1. Follow your municipality’s snow removal ordinance requirements;
2. Remove snow and ice as soon as humanly possible and no later that your municipalities time limits;
3. Inspect and re-inspect all property that contributes to snow and ice accumulation including overhangs and gutters. Fix any potential dangerous condition.
4. Keep a written record of all action taken to keep your property safe.
5. Should an accident occur, immediately call the police and then your insurance agent to provide prompt notice of the claim.