Pennsylvania: Premises Liability—Summary Judgment Granted in Slip and Fall

08/02/18

The Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas entered Summary Judgment in favor of an apartment complex and its management company represented by Rawle & Henderson LLP. The facts of the premises liability case raised issues directly involving the legal defense known as the “Hills and Ridges” doctrine.

Plaintiff lived with his father in an apartment complex located in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. He alleged that, at 5:00 in the morning on January 12, 2015, he left his apartment intending to go to a medical appointment but, upon leaving the building, he slipped on ice on the steps located outside his apartment building and fell down multiple steps striking the back of his head. Plaintiff filed a civil negligence suit against the apartment complex and its management company based on premises liability.

Based on our initial investigation, we determined that the case was defensible under the “Hills and Ridges” doctrine. In Pennsylvania, the “Hills and Ridges” doctrine protects an owner or occupier of land from liability for general slippery conditions resulting from ice or snow where the owner has not permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations. With this doctrine, the Court recognized that slippery conditions in the winter are a natural consequence of our climate.

Accordingly, “[t]o require that one’s walks be always free of ice and snow would be to impose an impossible burden in view of the climatic conditions in the hemisphere…the only duty upon the property owner…is to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove it when it is in a dangerous condition.”  See Harvey v. Rouse Chamberlin, Ltd., 2006 PA Super 130, P9 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006)(citing Morin v. Traveler’s Rest Motel, Inc., 704 A.2d 1085, 1087 (Pa. Super. 1997), appeal denied, 555 Pa. 708, 723 A.2d 1025 (1998)).

Rawle & Henderson's clients kept records which showed their winter weather property maintenance activities and the weather. From those records, we learned that the weather conditions that morning consisted of sleet, freezing rain and ice.

We then used discovery to build on that information. In addition to Plaintiff, we deposed Plaintiff’s father. The father testified that freezing rain began falling the night before and was still falling when the accident allegedly occurred. That testimony supported our clients’ records and our defense under “Hills and Ridges.”

To bolster the testimony and our defense, we retained a meteorologist, James Bria, to determine the weather at the time of the alleged incident. Bria’s research revealed that rain, freezing rain and sleet began falling around 11:35 p.m. on the night before the accident and continued to fall through approximately 12:25-12:50 p.m. on the date of the accident.

We then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment relying on the deposition testimony and the expert report. We argued that under the “Hills and Ridges” doctrine, our clients’ only duty was to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove snow and ice when it was in a dangerous condition. Using precedent, we pointed out that the time of day that the accident occurred did not warrant a finding that our clients failed to act within a reasonable time given the timing of the precipitation.

In addition, we cited recent case law for the proposition that a landowner does not have a duty to pre-treat for icy conditions and, moreover, a property owner is not required to treat for snow and ice while the winter precipitation is taking place. (Cf., Collins v. Phila. Suburban Dev. Corp., 2018 PA Super 17.) Here, the winter precipitation that caused the slippery conditions was ongoing and, as there is no duty to pre-treat walkways for ice, no liability can attach to our clients based on a claim of failure to pre-treat or on a claim of failure to remove the ice during the precipitation which was causing it.

The Honorable Paula Patrick of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas granted the Motion in favor of Rawle & Henderson's clients and dismissed the suit. The decision confirmed that the “Hills and Ridges” doctrine remains a viable defense.