To shovel or not to shovel? Illinois law encourages property owners to shovel their sidewalks.

In the December 2016 opinion, Murphy-Hylton v. Lieberman Management Services, the Illinois Supreme Court clarified a 1979 state law which protects property owners from certain slip-and- fall lawsuits stemming from snow shoveling. The case was filed by a suburban Chicago woman who fell on an icy sidewalk outside her Carol Stream condominium building, breaking her leg, knee and hip. She than filed a personal injury lawsuit against her condominium association, and the association’s property manager.

At issue in the case was an interpretation of the 40 year-old law, the Snow and Ice Removal Act, that was passed by the Illinois legislature to encourage property owners to shovel snow from their sidewalks by shielding them from injury claims resulting from inadequate shoveling. 

The nutshell summary of this decision and the state law, is that a property owner is shielded from liability if someone gets hurt because he/she did not do a good enough job of shoveling, but only when the snow or ice was the result of a natural accumulation of snow.

Interestingly the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of property owner in this case. While the condo association and manager defendants prevailed on summary judgment at the trial court level, the judgment was reversed on appeal. The Supreme Court then affirmed this appellate court reversal of that earlier ruling, and sent the case back to the lower court for trial to determine if the defendants were really entitled to immunity.

In the decision, the Supreme Court explained that property owners are not free to ignore hazardous unnatural accumulations of ice and snow. Specifically, the Court explained that "(t)he Snow and Ice Removal Act provides immunity to residential property owners from claims of liability for injuries allegedly caused by icy sidewalks that result from negligent snow and ice removal efforts, but it does not extend to immunize them from claims of liability for injuries allegedly caused by icy sidewalks that result from an otherwise negligent failure to maintain the premises."

So, what is a natural accumulation and what is an unnatural accumulation of ice and snow? A natural accumulation is what you would generally think of during a snowfall- snow and ice covered sidewalks and driveways that can typically be cleared with salt and a shovel. Even if the property does a lousy job of shoveling and salting the sidewalk, the owner cannot be held liable for a slip-and- fall. However, the Plaintiff in this case claimed she fell on a sidewalk that became icy due to inadequate drainage and the improper placement of downspouts.

In evaluating her argument, the Supreme Court referenced other examples of unnatural accumulation, such as snow that is negligently piled in an area of a parking lot where alternate thawing and freezing caused it to drain across the lot and freeze, forming an unnatural accumulation of ice. Other examples would be a pooling of water creating ice in a pothole on the sidewalk, or a frozen trail of water from a hose that was tossed down and never shut off.     

While some of these examples of unnatural accumulation seem to be innocent oversights by a property owner, we do note that liability is the rare exception in these Illinois cases, not the rule. Illinois courts have strictly interpreted the Snow and Ice Removal Act, and in doing so, will only impose liability on individuals (1) who fail to remove unnatural accumulations of snow and ice and (2) whose behavior is willful and wanton.