Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Baby It’s Cold Outside – and Slippery, Too!

As most regions of the country experience brutally cold temperatures with accumulations of snow and ice, we may find ourselves asking “how will the weather affect my travel plans?”  Having traveled to hearings twice this week in near-blizzard conditions, I can tell you that the latter question has frequently been on my mind.

Business and property owners have special concerns during these cold winter months.  Picture this:  It was cold today, but the sky was clear and sunny.  Customers came into your shop frequently all day, enjoying a respite from yesterday’s snowfall.  Toward the end of the day, as the sun sets, the wet puddles of melted snow begin to freeze over.  The sidewalk in front of your shop becomes a hazardous ice rink – a trap for unwary customers.  Just as you’re closing up shop for the evening, a man comes in, distraught and obviously in pain.  He slipped on an ice patch just outside of your door and needs medical attention.  You fear the lawsuit that is sure to come.  Your mind spins: Is your customer ok? Who should you call? Will your insurance policy cover this? Will your rates increase? What could you have done to prevent this calamity?

In most states, when a customer slips and falls on a business owner’s property, the injured customer can sue both the business owner and the property owner to recover for his injuries.  The theory is that the property and business owners should have done a better job keeping the customer safe from harm on the sidewalks and parking lots.  However, in Michigan, as in other states, business and property owners generally have no legal duty to protect their customers and clients from conditions that are “open and obvious.” A condition is “open and obvious” if a normal customer could have observed the condition (e.g. the snow pile up, the icy spot, the pothole) upon a casual observation.  In general, it’s better, from a property owner’s perspective, to have a condition be readily apparent, than for the condition to be hidden.

With that in mind, what can a business or property owner do to minimize its liability for snowy and icy conditions?  Here are a few suggestions that may help to minimize these winter risks:

  • Inspect sidewalks, parking lots, and other areas where customers traverse for dangerous conditions;
  • Remove snow and put down anti-icing agents, such as salt, on surfaces;
  • Keep well-traveled areas lit to aid customers and clients coming into and out of your building in the evening and morning hours;
  • Provide handrails where possible;
  • Post signs warning that the sidewalk/parking lot/hallway may be slippery;
  • Verbally warn customers by mouth of any known icy or dangerous conditions on your property; and, finally,
  • Leave a little bit of snow cover on the parking lot if you fear that icy conditions, especially black ice, are likely to form.
While these tips may help a property owner avoid liability, business and property owners alike should consult with their attorney and insurance provider before the winter season begins to identify risks and after any incident occurs on the property.