Following is a summary of Washington law concerning landowners’ responsibility for slips and falls caused by ice and snow on their property.
Private Sidewalks, Parking Lots and Roadways
A business has a general duty of reasonable care to its customers with respect to conditions on its property. This includes conditions caused by naturally accumulating snow and ice on their property. Leonard v. Pay’n Save Drug Stores, Inc., 75 Wn.App. 445 (1994). Landlords are also under a duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to the accumulation of ice and snow in common areas in their premises. Mucsi v. Graoch Associates Ltd. Partnership No. 12, 144 Wn.2d 847 (2001). Landowners such as business owners and landlords may be legally responsible for injuries to their customers or tenants from slips and falls in ice or snow on private driveways, parking lots and sidewalks, where the three following conditions are met:
- The landowner knew, or should have known, that ice and snow had accumulated on its property and that it posed an unreasonable risk of harm to people walking across the property;
- The landowner knew, or should have known, that persons walking across its property either would not realize the danger posed by ice and snow, or would not protect themselves from this danger; and
- The landowner failed to take reasonable steps to protect the injured person from the danger posed by the ice and snow.
A landowner has constructive notice of a dangerous condition where it has existed long enough that the landowner had time in the exercise of ordinary care to have inspected the premises and discovered and removed it. Iwai v. State, Employment Security Department, 129 Wn.2d 84 (1996).
A city or county is generally responsible for removing snow and ice from public sidewalks as necessary to keep them reasonably safe for pedestrians to travel on. Gardner v. Kendrick, 7 Wash.App. 852 (1972). But before it may be held liable, the municipality must have notice, either actual or constructive, that its sidewalks have become unreasonably dangerous because of the accumulation of ice or snow, and then it has a reasonable time to correct the hazard. See Leroy v. State, 124 Wn. App. 65 (2004). Again, constructive notice may be may be inferred from the length of time the dangerous condition has existed.
The municipal code for Vancouver, Washington, provides that it is a violation for the owner or occupier of any property next to a public sidewalk to permit the accumulation of ice or snow on it or to allow it to remain in a dangerous or slippery condition. VMC § 11.30.030. The Clark County, Washington, code requires that all owners of property abutting upon any county road keep the public sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition. CCC § 12.26.010. The Washington Court of Appeals has held that ordinances and codes such as these do not give an individual who is injured as a result of an abutting landowner’s failure to maintain a sidewalk a legal claim against the landowner. Birdsall v. Abrams, 105 Wn.App. 24 (2001). The Clark County Code section on sidewalk maintenance and repair provides that an abutting landowner is liable to the County for recoveries against it as a result of the owner’s failure to keep sidewalks next to its property in reasonable safe condition. But the Washington State Supreme Court has held that an ordinance that attempts to impose liability on abutting private property owners for a condition of public sidewalks is unenforceable. Rivett v. City of Tacoma, 123 Wn.2d 573 (1994). The Court ruled an abutting private property owners are not legally responsible for the physical condition of a public sidewalk unless the property owner causes or contributes to the condition.
Known or Obvious Hazard
Landowners frequently argue they do not owe a duty to invitees on their property to warn them about or protect them from known or open and obvious hazards such as snow and ice. But landowners can still be liable for known or open and obvious hazards on their property, if they should anticipate the harm. A landowner may be charged with anticipating harm from a known or open and obvious hazard, if a reasonable person in the invitee’s position would encounter the hazard because the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk. In Maynard v. Sisters of Providence, 72 Wn.App. 878 (1994), the Washington Court of Appeals held the defendant could still be found liable for the plaintiff’s injuries from a fall in the defendant’s parking lot, even though the plaintiff knew that the parking lot was icy, because a reasonable person might do as the plaintiff had and attempt to go back to the hospital to get sand to help with traction, so he could get his car out of the parking lot.
Assumption of Risk
Washington recognizes assumption of risk as a defense in a negligence case. Two types of assumption of risk, express and implied primary, can completely relieve a defendant from liability that might otherwise exist for its negligent conduct. Express assumption of risk can arise where the plaintiff states words to the effect that he or she consents to relieve the defendant of a duty the defendant would otherwise owe to the plaintiff. Implied primary assumption of the risk can arise when a plaintiff engages in conduct from which his or her consent to relieve the defendant is implied. If one of these primary types of assumption of risk applies, the defendant is not responsible for any harm to the plaintiff arising out of the risk the plaintiff assumed, even if the defendant’s negligence caused that risk.
In Hvolboll v. Wolff Co., 187 Wn.App. 37347 P.3d 476 (2015), the Washington Court of Appeals discussed the application of implied primary assumption of the risk in a case where a tenant slipped and fell on accumulated ice and snow in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Spokane. The area had received a record snowfall that winter. The tenant had previous problems walking in the complex because of snow and ice. He had repeatedly complained to management about the snowy and icy conditions in the complex. He conceded the sidewalks had been generally kept clear of snow, but testified ice and snow remained on the roadways in the complex even after they were plowed. He fell while walking across a roadway in front of mailboxes in the complex. He sued the landlord and its management company for the serious injuries he received in the fall. The defendant moved for and was granted a dismissal of the lawsuit by the trial court, on the grounds that the plaintiff fully knew about, understood and appreciated the risk of falling on the snow and ice, and voluntarily choose to encounter that risk. The Court of Appeals rule that a landlord can assert implied assumption of risk in cases involving falls on snow and ice.