Weather Related Slip and Fall Cases Involving School or Municipal Property

by: Thomas E. Brenner

There continues to be a proliferation of lawsuits asserting claims for personal injury from slip and fall cases, particularly from snow or icy weather. Plaintiff’s counsel in cases in which their clients have sustained significant injuries from a fall assert negligence by the property owners or property maintenance companies caused the fall.

As a general rule, Pennsylvania courts have recognized that climatic conditions cause slippery conditions at times of ice or snow and do not find property owners liable for these conditions. Rather, Pennsylvania has adopted the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine requiring a plaintiff to prove that snow and ice has accumulated on a sidewalk or parking area in ridges or elevations of size and character as to constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling thereon and that the property owner had constructive notice of such conditions. Wentz v. Pennswood Apartments, 518 A.2d 314 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986).

When representing a school district or a local agency, there is additional protection under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §8541 et seq. This statute provides immunity for local agency and school districts, but sets forth a series of exceptions. There are exceptions for real estate, streets and sidewalks. However, the Courts of Pennsylvania have narrowly construed these exceptions, indicating that the proof must show that it was a condition deriving from the street or sidewalk that caused the injury rather than the presence of some foreign substance (snow or ice) on the sidewalk. Metkus v. Pensbury School District, 674 A.2d 355 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1996) and Bowles v. SEPTA, 581 A.2d 700 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1990).

In Metkus, the Commonwealth Court held that no liability could be imposed where the injury was caused solely by the presence of ice on a property. Similarly in Bowles, a plaintiff alleged that a natural accumulation of ice caused her injuries, but did not establish there were any artificial condition or defect in the land. The Court held the exception to the immunity rule was not applicable.

In Gordan v. Borough of East Stroudsburg, 19 Pa. D&C 4th 37 (C.P. Monroe, 1993), the court held the injury must result from an artificial condition or defect in the land itself, and not where the injury arises from natural weather conditions. In Gordan, the court specifically addressed the condition known as “black ice” and found it does not fall within an enumerated exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

Thus, if one is defending a municipal entity or school district in addition to the protection of the hills and ridges doctrine, the provisions of the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act insulate the municipality or school district from liability in a slip and fall case.

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