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During our winter season, many of us try our best to provide safe walkways or entryways to our property by clearing the snow and salting the sidewalk, but is it enough to protect ourselves from liability? With the way the winter weather conditions change in Chicago, the sad reality is that someone could still fall on ice walking in or out of your home or business despite your best efforts. You may be relieved to hear that in most instances the short answer is NO, but, as in most things in the law, there are exceptions in Illinois that you need to understand.
As an Illinois property owner, let us look briefly at what is required of you under the law, and where the exceptions may lay. The law is that a landowner has no obligation (i.e. duty) to remove what is referred to as “natural accumulations” of snow and ice. This is a common sense rule as it recognizes how difficult and onerous it would be have to keep our sidewalks and walking surfaces free of snow and ice at all times with the constantly changing weather conditions that we experience in our climate.
To know what is best for you to do, it is important to understand what makes a natural accumulation of snow and ice and how it differs from an unnatural accumulation. A natural accumulation is what it sounds like--a layer or gathering of snow or ice that has formed on the ground due to snow falling from the sky or precipitation naturally settling there and then freezing. An unnatural accumulation is the opposite, the snow or ice that has gathered, is there only because of artificial causes or man-made efforts (it was dumped or shoveled there or is due to an improper property design). Thus, while you cannot create or have an influence on the snow or ice accumulating , as long as the accumulation is there only due to natural weather conditions, you have no obligation to shovel or salt your sidewalks or driveways, and thus can’t be held liable if someone falls and injures themselves.
Some basic examples of an unnatural accumulation include:
When someone slips and falls due to the presence of snow or ice, there are times that it may be difficult to distinguish between a natural vs unnatural accumulation. The question becomes where exactly did the fall take place and then what’s the precise nature of the accumulation at that location. In those cases, the court will usually dismiss the victim’s claims where these questions cannot be clearly shown or identified because the law places the burden on the party bringing the claim to have clear evidence in order for a lawsuit to proceed.
Naturally the question many have is what should we do to act reasonably under the law but also responsibly as a member of your neighborhood/community. A good rule of thumb to follow is: the law will protect you as long as the efforts you use to clear the snow and ice do not result in the creation of a new hazard or worsen an existing one. Be smart and careful when you clear your sidewalks and driveways of snow and ice and you can make it safe for visitors to enter onto to your property and not worry about being liable if a fall occurs.
If you are a property owner and are faced with a situation where someone claims to have fallen on your premises, you should always report it to your insurance company and ask your agent for advice on any responsibility you may or may not have. If you are the victim and have fallen and have sustained a serious injury because of a hazardous or unsafe condition, you should consult with an experienced attorney.
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Hurst Boleky LLC is located in Chicago, Illinois and services clients in and around Cook County and throughout Illinois.
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