In the recent past, I have written several posts about when property owners can be liable for accidents caused by their failure to shovel snow from the sidewalks abutting their property. The basic rules are well settled – residential property owners generally don't have a duty to shovel but commercial property owners do. Therefore, my posts focused on the more unique (and hopefully, interesting) cases. For example, one post discussed whether a property was residential or commercial, and therefore whether the property owner would be required to shovel or not, when the owner lived in one unit of the multifamily building and rented out the other units. Another post discussed whether a lender who obtained final judgment of foreclosure on a commercial property, but that had not yet taken title to the property through a sheriff's sale, was required to shovel the sidewalks around the building.
Now there is another case that is somewhat different than the traditional snowy sidewalk slip and fall. In Holmes v. INCAA-Carroll Street Houses Corp, plaintiff was a tenant in a property owned by defendants. She sued after she slipped, while on the way to her car, on "an accumulation of snow" approximately three feet from the doorway to her apartment. (The area where she fell was actually not a sidewalk, but was instead a "lawn or grassy area," but this distinction was not relevant to the court's decision.) A snowstorm has been raging since the night before. The snow had slowed, and perhaps even stopped, by the morning of the accident, but the storm had nonetheless dropped more than 15 inches of snow on the area. The conditions in the area were so severe that, when plaintiff's son called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, the ambulance company refused because of poor road conditions. The roads were not clear until the following day, at which point plaintiff drover herself to her doctor's office to be examined.
Plaintiff alleged that defendant had a duty to clear the snow from the property. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to do so in the middle of a storm. The court agreed with defendant.
The question of whether a landlord owes a duty of care to maintain private walkways in a reasonably safe condition is fact-sensitive and controlled by whether the imposition of such a duty would be fair and reasonable. In Holmes, defendant submitted an expert report from a meteorologist that described the weather on the date of the accident and noted that a winter storm warning had been in effect from the night before the accident through the morning of the accident. Defendant did not submit any evidence to counter the expert's description of the weather conditions other than to dispute the expert's claim that it was still snowing on the morning of the accident.
The court, relying on the expert report, held that it would have been unfair and unreasonable to require the landlord to shovel snow in the middle of a storm (or, at best, shortly after it ended), and while a winter storm warning was still in place. In addition, the court noted that the risk of walking in those conditions should have been obvious to plaintiff as she "knew about the snow before stepping outdoors, and once at the door, could clearly see the hazardous conditions in which she had to walk."
To be clear, this case does not stand for the proposition that a landlord never has a duty to shovel the sidewalks abutting its property. Rather, it simply stands for the proposition that a landlord will probably not be required to do so in the middle of the storm that is generating the snow, and will not be held liable when the danger of walking on the sidewalk is, or should be, obvious to tenants.