If you’re a typical Ohioan, you see three things when you look out the windows of your home during the winter: trees, snow and ice.
They’re everywhere. This probably explains why I’ve been asked thousands of questions since I became an attorney about the legal issues arising from falling trees and falling on snow and ice.
I promise I’ll discuss trees in a future column. For today, let’s focus on what happens when the law of gravity collides with the law governing personal injury lawsuits. I know a lot of people believe they have a slam dunk case if they slip and fall on ice and snow.
How do I know? Because I get lots of phone calls like this every winter:
Caller: “Attorney Betras, I fell and broke my (insert body part here) because the bum who owns (insert random business here) didn’t shovel the snow or clean up the ice in front of the joint. I want to sue his butt off. How much can I get?”
Me (sighing): “Maybe nothing.”
Me: “Yup, nothing.”
The frustrated caller then utters some words and phrases I can’t repeat here and hangs up.
The source of the frustration is a little-known legal principle known as the “natural accumulation rule” which reads in part: “…no liability will attach to the occupier of premises for a slip and fall occurring due to natural accumulations of ice or snow, these being deemed open and obvious hazards in Ohio’s climate, from which persons entering the premises must protect themselves.”
The rule applies to businesses, public buildings, condo and apartment complexes and private residences.
In other words, we live in Ohio, it’s cold and slippery in the winter, so watch what the heck you’re doing when you’re outside because property owners are not required or expected to remove natural accumulations of ice and snow.
Ironically, property owners who DO try to keep parking lots and sidewalks clear may lose the protection afforded them under the natural accumulation rule. Conditions caused by human intervention including sloppy plowing or shoveling that creates ruts or bumps or surfaces that turn into hockey rinks when ice melted by the application of salt or other chemicals refreezes may be considered “unnatural accumulations” and it is possible to recover damages for injuries caused by them.
Property owners may also be liable if potholes and cracked sidewalks obscured by ice and snow cause injuries. For example, a customer who was hurt when he stepped into a deep snow-covered hole in a parking lot sued successfully when he proved the business owner knew the hole was there and did nothing to fix it or warn unsuspecting patrons about it.
An attorney can help determine if the cause of your slip and fall is exempt from the “natural accumulation” rule and suggest a course of action.
The bottom line: do your best to avoid falling on your bottom during our horrible winters by watching where you step, wearing appropriate shoes and boots, and putting your phone away.
Texting while walking is a very real hazard.
Until next week, stay safe and upright out there.
— Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you’d like answered here? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.