Slips and Falls on Ice and Snow – The "Hills and Ridges Doctrine"

The “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine provides protection to persons in control of property on which a slip and fall occurs on ice or snow. However, confusion exists as to the applicability of this defense, which is only available when the fall is caused by a natural accumulation of ice or snow.

Pennsylvania Standard Civil Jury Instruction 7.04, titled Owner/Occupier’s Duty of Care (Ice or Snow on Abutting Public Sidewalk or Walking Surface) states the following:

One in possession of land is required to remove ice and snow that has accumulated on the public [sidewalk] [walking surface] abutting his or her property within a reasonable time after he or she is on notice that a dangerous condition exists. To establish liability upon the landowner, the plaintiff must prove that each of the following three essentials was present:

First, that ice and snow had accumulated on the [sidewalk] [walking surface] in ridges or elevations that unreasonably obstructed travel and were a danger to persons traveling on the walk;

Second, that the defendant property owner knew or should have known of the existence of such conditions;

Third, that it was the dangerous accumulation of ice and snow that caused the plaintiff to fall.

The first “essential” in the Standard Jury Instruction is commonly known as the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine. The Doctrine protects an owner or occupier of land from liability for “generally slippery conditions resulting from ice and snow where the owner has not permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations.” Morin v. Traveler’s Rest Motel, Inc., 704 A.2d 1085, 1087 (Pa. Super. 1997). The rationale behind the Doctrine is that a possessor of land should not be liable for general slippery conditions, for to require that one’s walkways be always free of ice and snow would impose an impossible burden in view of the climatic conditions in Pennsylvania. Wentz v. Pennswood Apts., 518 A.2d 314 (Pa. Super. 1986).

However, there are limits to the applicability of the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine. The Doctrine may be applied only in cases where the snow and ice complained of are the result of an entirely natural accumulation following a recent weather event, because the protection afforded by the Doctrine is predicated on the assumption that these formations are natural phenomena incidental to our climate. Bacsick v. Barnes, 341 A.2d 157 (Pa. Super. 1975). As such, where the ice and/or snow is localized and there are no generally slippery conditions in the community or when a slippery condition is caused by an artificial condition rather than a recent weather event, the Doctrine is inapplicable. For example, icy conditions resulting from the melting and refreezing of snow and ice rather than a recent storm would not be subject to the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine. Similarly, icy conditions resulting from a defective water pipe or leaking gutter would not be covered by the Doctrine.

In the recent case of Harvey v. Rouse Chamberlin, Ltd., 901 A.2d 523 (Pa. Super. 2006), the Superior Court held that the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine would not apply when Mrs. Harvey fell on a road which had been recently plowed and appeared to be clear and dry, but actually had black ice. The Superior Court found that the trial court’s granting a non-suit based upon the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine was inappropriate because the condition of the land was “influenced by human intervention” namely snowplowing, such that the ice was not the result of an entirely natural accumulation. Id. at 527.

When pursuing or defending and slip and fall case involving ice or snow, it is critical to understand and properly analyze the “Hills and Ridges” Doctrine in order to determine whether or not the defense applies.