Alan Nochumson. Alan Nochumson.

In Collins v. Philadelphia Suburban Development, 2018 Pa. Super. LEXIS 72 (Jan. 31, 2018), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently upheld a verdict against a slip and fall plaintiff who filed a negligence claim against a property sidewalk owner, Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. (PSDC), and a snow removal company, Ross’s Home Improvement (Ross), following a slip-and-fall incident that occurred during an active blizzard.

On Jan. 21, 2014, the plaintiff slipped and fell on an ice and snow-covered sidewalk on PSDC-owned property, the opinion said.

According to the opinion, Collins then filed suit against PSDC and Ross. In the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that PSDC and Ross negligently allowed snow and ice to accumulate, causing severe injury to the plaintiff from the fall.

During discovery, security camera video footage was produced showing that the snow and ice accumulated during a blizzard, starting hours before and lasting through the alleged incident, the opinion said.

Quoting Biernacki v. Presque Isle Condominiums Unit Owners Association, 828 A.2d 114 (Pa. Super. 2003), the trial court in Collins, in granting PSDC’s motion for summary judgment, concluded that the Hills and Ridges doctrine applied, thereby protecting “an owner or occupier of land from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from the ice and snow where the owner has not permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations.”

After the remainder of the case was settled via arbitration, the plaintiff appealed the trial court’s ruling in favor of PSDC to the Superior Court, the opinion said.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that summary judgment was not appropriate because this case should have been an exception to the Hills and Ridges doctrine, namely being that it was through PSDC’s “antecedent negligence” the snowy/icy sidewalk arose, and that there were multiple issues of material fact that precluded summary judgment.

In Collins, the Superior Court explained the Hills and Ridges doctrine, quoting Biernacki: “in order to recover for a fall on an ice- or snow-covered surface, a plaintiff must show that snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians travelling thereon; that the property owner had notice, either actual or constructive, of the existence of such condition; and that it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice which caused the plaintiff to fall.”

Regarding the issue of when a property owner has to take action, the Superior Court then, quoting Gilligan v. Villanova University, 584 A.2d 1005 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1991), stated that, “the only duty upon the property owner or tenant is to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove the snow and ice when it is in a dangerous condition.”

Quoting Harvey v. Rouse Chamberlin, 901 A.2d 523, 526 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006), the Superior Court in Collins then emphasized that the Hills and Ridges doctrine may only apply in cases “where the snow and ice complained of are the result of an entirely natural accumulation following a recent snowfall.”

The Superior Court in Collins pointed out that the Hills and Ridges doctrine does compel a property owner to act within a reasonable amount of time to eliminate the snow or ice “after notice of a dangerous condition of hills and ridges of natural accumulations of snow or ice.”

On appeal, the plaintiff first argued that this case was an exception to Hills and Ridges doctrine because PSDC’s conduct caused the icy/snowy condition, as Collins PSDC should have pre-treated the walkways with de-icing product prior to the start of the forecasted snowstorm and, as such, whether a duty to pre-treat the sidewalk existed, was a triable fact that should have prevented granting summary judgment.

Addressing this argument, the Superior Court in Collins relied upon its decision in Morin v. Traveler’s Rest Motel, 704 A.2d 1085 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1997)—a case which found no affirmative duty to salt pr sand a parking lot during or immediately after a snowstorm—to hold that PSDC in this case did not have an affirmative legal duty to treat the sidewalk before the snowstorm.

Morin was a case where the Superior Court reaffirmed that the Hills and Ridges doctrine applied to commercial properties as well as residences and land owned by municipalities.

Specifically, in the Morin, “hills and ridges” applied to a motel parking lot when a guest slipped and fell on a portion of a lot that was partially—but not completely—salted the morning after an evening of freezing rain.

The plaintiff also argued that expert testimony on industry practice requirements, that PSDC needed a formal snow removal agreement in writing with Ross; a pre-season inspection; and a pre-season snowstorm safety discussion; created issues of material fact regarding PSDC’s negligence.

The Superior Court dismissed the plaintiff’s offer of expert testimony on industry practice, because the already applicable Hills and Ridges doctrine made clear that no affirmative duty existed until after the snowstorm had stopped.

The third and final argument made by the plaintiff in Collins, that snow and ice hid a ramp in the sidewalk, which masked a defective condition—thereby precluding applicability of the Hills and Ridges doctrine—was another material fact that prevented granting summary judgment.

The Superior Court dismissed the third and final argument, that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding a defective condition by a sidewalk ramp hidden by snow mounds, due to lack of argument development and no “citation to relevant authority.”

Ultimately, referencing the trial court’s reliance on Biernacki—a case where summary judgment was granted in favor of a condominium association that did not clear snow from a parking lot by early morning after an overnight snowfall—the Superior Court in Collins agreed with the trial court that PSDC had no duty to clear snow and ice from the sidewalk during an active blizzard, because the storm had not ended.

In doing so, the Superior Court in Collins emphasized that there was no way to assess whether a reasonable or unreasonable amount of time had passed to address the snow and ice, because the blizzard was still ongoing.

Lessons Learned

If applicable, the Hills and Ridges doctrine may afford protection from slip-and-fall lawsuits for property owners, regardless of whether the property is residential, commercial, or municipal.

Under preexisting law, the trial court will focus on whether the icy/snowy condition: was a naturally occurring accumulation; took the form of ridges or elevations; that said accumulation unreasonably obstructed travel and constituted a danger to travelling pedestrians; was noticed by the property owner; and was dangerous and caused the plaintiff to fall.

Issues involving whether a property owner timely addressed icy and snowy conditions under the Hills and Ridges doctrine must first address whether the slip-and-fall event occurred during or after a completed winter storm. As the court emphasized by the Superior Court in Collins, no duty to remove a dangerous condition within a reasonable time can exist when the storm is still ongoing and, equally important, failure to pre-treat a sidewalk before a winter storm is also not a breach of an affirmative legal duty.

—Francis Shannon Sweeney, a third-year student at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, who is interning this semester at Nochumson P.C., contributed to this article.

Alan Nochumson is the sole shareholder of Nochumson P.C., where his law firm’s primary practice areas consist of real estate, litigation, land use and zoning, business formation and general counseling and appellate advocacy. He is also president of Bear Abstract Services, where his title insurance company offers comprehensive title insurance, title examination and closing services. He can be reached at 215-399-1346 or alan.nochumson@nochumson.com.