The Snow is Coming!: Natural Accumulation Rule in Illinois
Let’s face it. Even though it’s only September, snow and ice are just right around the corner. Snow and ice increase everyone’s chances of slipping, tripping, and falling. So, what should you do to avoid liability for snow and ice on your property? Illinois has a “natural accumulation rule.” That means that if snow and ice suddenly appear on your property, and someone injuries themselves on it, then you will not be liable. Even when you remove the snow, but not the ice underneath, then you cannot be liable. However, that doesn’t give you a free pass to avoid shoveling and salting this year.
Recently, employees at a gas station in Danville, Illinois wondered if they would end up being punished for shoveling and salting their parking lot and sidewalks. After a snowstorm, the employees conducted their regular snow-clearing operations. They shoveled and salted, salting one area in particular: the metal plates that covered holes where the station received gas. The plates are slightly below the asphalt line, and would occasionally fill with packed snow from the snowplow. On this particular day, the snowplow had also come through their parking lot.
A customer got out of her vehicle and slipped almost immediately on one of the metal plates. She ended up breaking her ankle due to her fall. She was unable to continue some of her daily activities because of this accident; she stated that she was unable to continue work for some time. She sued the gas station for her medical bills, pain and suffering, and time that she missed for work.
At the trial court level, the court awarded the injured woman $372,457.25. However, the gas station appealed the award. At the appellate level, the court discussed the “natural accumulation rule” at length. The Court explained that the natural accumulation rule is not nearly as strict as it would sound. The Court explained the basic premise of the rule: “Under the natural accumulation rule, a landowner or possessor of real property has no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice, snow, or water from its property. Even when landowners voluntarily remove snow, they do not owe a duty to remove natural accumulations of ice underneath the snow.”
However, this rule arguably discourages individuals and businesses from removing snow and ice. To avoid that discouragement, the court further explained that “along with snow removal operations like shoveling and plowing, the mere sprinkling of salt, causing ice to melt, although it may later refreeze, does not aggravate a natural condition so as to form a basis for liability on the part of the property owner.” The Court wants to encourage shoveling and salting, and realizes that when people perform this duty, it will likely never be a perfect job. Requiring perfection would create an unreasonable burden on individuals.
Generally, then, the Court encourages people to shovel and salt their parking lots and sidewalks. However, those jobs will never be perfect, and it would be ridiculous to require perfection. As long as the landowner or possessor of real property doesn’t deliberately put snow in a location where it would be a hazard or do an absolutely terrible job removing snow, the Illinois courts are likely going to find that the snow is a natural accumulation and the landowner will not be held liable.
It is important to note, however, that your city or neighborhood may require that you shovel your sidewalks. Just because you cannot be liable for a natural accumulation, does not mean that you won’t be fined for failing to follow a city ordinance. Be sure to check your local laws before you throw out your shovel this year.