In the late winter and early spring of every year, we typically get multiple inquiries regarding accidents that happened because of the presence of ice on sidewalks, stairwells and parking lots. Many of these accidents result in substantial, meaningful personal injuries. I’ve seen broken ankles and legs, shattered wrists and back injuries that require extensive surgical repair and a lengthy recuperation. There are similarities between these types of accidents and collision that occur on icy roadways. Both involve the interplay of naturally occurring conditions over which an individual has no control, such as ice and snow, and the responsibility of that individual in light of these natural conditions. When operating a motor vehicle in less than ideal climatic conditions, the law requires each individual to conform their conduct so as they are acting reasonably in the face of prevailing weather conditions. In the same manner, the law requires an individual walking on a sidewalk, stairwell, or through a parking lot, when ice is or is likely to be present, to conform their conduct to then prevailing environmental conditions. What I typically see is that there are three general, broad categories into which these accidents can be grouped:
- Falls caused because of icy conditions at private residences
- Falls that occur on privately owned commercial premises
- Falls occurring on government or state-owned property
There are a variety of considerations that come into play for each category of accident. Certainly, general substantive Maryland law requires the owner or possessor of any real property to keep that property clear of dangerous and defective conditions of which they knew or should have known, so as to avoid the risk of injury to others. This obligation or duty would include a responsibility to remedy the dangerous or defective condition and to warn others of the condition during the pendency of the repair process. Additionally, many local governments have enacted separate laws, ordinances or regulations requiring additional specific duties imposing and time frames for the removal of snow and ice.1 If the property upon which the accident happened is controlled by a state or local government, the defense of governmental immunity and applicable notice requirements to government agencies and entities will come into play.
Very probably the biggest single obstacle to an injured individual prevailing in a claim for a slip or fall on icy surfaces involves the application of a doctrine known as assumption of the risk.
The law defines assumption of the risk as a knowing and voluntary undertaking of an activity that entails substantial risk of bodily harm or injury. In other words, with full appreciation of a danger, nevertheless placing oneself In harm's way. Additionally, in the context of falls on ice, Maryland courts have made a distinction between visible ice, and what is known as black ice. Black ice is typically clear, rather than black, but nonetheless, because of its transparency, is typically invisible to the person walking, or driving, on it.
Maryland courts have ruled that every reasonable prudent person should be aware prevailing climatic conditions. Moreover, they should be aware of their surroundings and environment and in particular the condition of various roadways, walkways, parking lots and other areas upon which they may have to walk. If there is visible ice present, and an individual chooses to walk on it, in almost every instance this is going to constitute a knowing assumption of the risk of a fall, and hence a defense to a personal injury claim. Where, however, “black ice” is the instrumentality causing the fall, and injury, a jury will be tasked with determining if the person actually knew of the presence of black ice, or icy conditions. If the injured person did not have that actual knowledge, and that testimony was believed, or if the person had no choice whatsoever but to walk on the ice, an assumption of the risk defense may not be successful. Of course, the court, in any given case is free to rule that, based on all the undisputed facts, any reasonable person must have appreciated the presence of ice, black or otherwise, and reject any contention that the plaintiff did not know a being unreasonable as a matter of law, or unbelievable.
I’ve handled many ice and snow cases over the years. These are difficult cases, to the extent that many attorneys do not handle them. I invite all potential clients to participate in a no-cost analysis and strategy conference. Contact me today to arrange a time to meet. 410 591 2835, or simply complete the form at the bottom of the page.
1 Baltimore City Code, 305.8.1. Time for compliance. The snow and ice must be removed and cleared away: 1. within 6 hours after the snow has stopped falling; or 2. if the snow stopped falling between 3 p.m. and 6 a.m., before 11 a.m. 05/22/17 -205- IPMC § 306 BALTIMORE CITY REVISED CODE 305.8.2 Manner of compliance. The snow and ice must be removed and cleared away in a manner that: 1. leaves a clear path that is at least 2 feet wide; and 2. does not obstruct the passage of water in the gutters