In the last few weeks, I’ve written about different types of negligence cases (such as a premises liability/mass shooting case and a medical malpractice case).
This week, I’m going to give you the elements of another type of premises liability case - the slip & fall or trip & fall case. Again, you’ll notice the elements of many of these cases are similar because NEGLIGENCE is the overarching concept.
Before we get to the elements, consider the following hypothetical:
John, a middle-aged man in good health, is walking into a grocery store in small-town, Wyoming. It’s January, bitterly cold, and windy. It’s also evening and dark outside. It snowed the day before. The store cleared the walks and entryway yesterday, but the wind has blown some of it back onto the sidewalk. Ice has also collected in spots. Store employees are sprinkling ice melt on one end of the sidewalk, but haven’t made it to the entryway yet, which is where John is walking.
John steps onto the sidewalk leading to the entryway. Unfortunately, he steps right onto one of the small patches of ice, slips, falls backward awkwardly, and tears his ACL.
Is the grocery store liable for John’s injury? Should it have maintained the sidewalks better? Should people in Wyoming expect ice and snow on sidewalks during the winter, and thus, walk more carefully?
To establish the negligence of the grocery store, John must prove:
1. The grocery store had a duty to keep its sidewalks clear of ice;
2. The grocery store breached the duty by failing to keep its sidewalks clear of ice;
3. The grocery store’s breach caused John’s torn ACL; and
4. John’s injury is compensable by money damages.
The biggest hurdle in many slip & fall cases is the first element -- the DUTY of the landowner. Wyoming follows the “natural accumulation rule,” which protects landowners or business owners from liability. The Rule states, “A proprietor is not considered negligent for allowing the natural accumulation of ice due to weather conditions where he has not created the condition. The conditions created by the elements, such as the forming of ice and falling of snow, are universally known and there is no liability where the danger is obvious or is as well known to the plaintiff as the property owner.” RB, Jr. by & through Brown v. Big Horn Cty. Sch. Dist. No. 3, 2017 WY 13, ¶ 14, 388 P.3d 542, 547 (Wyo. 2017).
This Rule seems sensible, given that we are well aware of the dangers winter weather (and even spring weather) brings to Wyoming on a consistent basis.
But what if the city in which John lives and the grocery store operates has an ordinance that requires landowners to clear their sidewalks “with haste” or “immediately” of all snow and ice? Many towns in Wyoming have such ordinances, and if John’s town is one of them, the grocery store might well be liable.
The Wyoming Supreme Court has stated that these ordinances show the city’s “clear intent” to establish a “heightened standard of care.” Id. This means the city’s ordinance CREATES AN AFFIRMATIVE DUTY (overriding the natural accumulation rule) for a landowner within the city limits to remove snow, ice, slush, or anything else mentioned in the ordinance.
How and when snow, ice, and slush need to be removed depends on the ordinance. So, you would be wise to hire a personal injury attorney to delve into those questions for you. Also, just because a city ordinance exists, doesn’t mean you don’t have to prove the other elements of the case, each of which has its own obstacles and nuances.
If you’ve slipped and fallen and injured yourself on a business’ property or sidewalk, contact a personal injury lawyer to discuss the details and whether or not you have a claim.