By Francis M. Smith
Every year, it seems that winter grows longer, more severe, and more unpredictable. One thing that remains constant, however, is the increased risk of slipping and falling that comes with winter weather. Anyone who has spent a winter in New Jersey knows the perils that come with snow and ice accumulation. When the temperature climbs above freezing for part of the day the danger can actually increase, as packed snow begins to melt and turns to slippery slush, then re-freezes as temperatures drop during the night. Additionally, previously cleared sidewalks can become icy when adjacent snow shoveled off the sidewalk melts, the water flows onto the sidewalk, and freezes. Most people take pains to move carefully across outdoor surfaces when snow and ice cover the ground, but black ice and hidden slick spots under snow cover are difficult to spot.
A fall on ice can mean a broken ankle, a damaged knee, a fractured wrist, spinal damage, or traumatic brain injury, depending on how you fall. Slipping on ice can send an accident victim falling forward or backward, and pitching forward often means your knees and wrists will take the brunt of the impact as you try to break your fall with your hands – often resulting in fractured wrists or arms. Falling backward can mean even more severe injuries as your head, neck, and back take the full force of the impact, leading to traumatic brain injuries and potential damage to your back and spine. Elderly people are at particular risk of a fall on ice, as they often have a more difficult time recovering from fractures and other serious injuries, and certain injuries (such as a broken hip) can result in a permanent impairment in mobility and quality of life.
Snow and ice are naturally occurring, but that does not eliminate a property owner's responsibility to maintain a safe property for visitors, since the hazards presented are both foreseeable, and preventable. The duty of care that the property manager of a business or other commercial property owes visitors is more demanding than the responsibility of the owner of a private single-family residence, but both have some expectations that they must meet. The manager of a commercial property has a duty to eliminate or warn of any hazardous condition on the property of which he has notice, whether that notice is actual (he has seen or been informed of the condition) or constructive (a reasonable person would know about the hazard, or would have discovered it by performing a regular inspection of the property).
Winter weather in New Jersey is a sufficiently predictable phenomenon for anyone who has spent time in the state that a reasonable person should know that snow and ice create slipping hazards. Therefore, a property owner or manager does not need to be actively informed that the parking lot and walkways are icy or clogged with snow in order to realize these hazards need to be addressed. Most commercial property managers will hire a company to plow their parking lot and shovel their walkways, but they may neglect to have anyone spread rock salt or other de-icing agents, viewing these as an unnecessary waste of money. Neglecting this simple safety measure creates a danger for visitors to the property and may open the business up to personal injury suits if a customer experiences a fall on ice that could have been prevented with the simple precaution of a little salt.
The owner of a private residence generally has a less stringent duty of care toward social visitors than a business manager holds toward customers. Many towns require residents to remove snow and ice from their sidewalks and walkways, and may impose a fine for failure to do so, but this does not confer liability for injuries sustained by pedestrians or visitors who fall on ice or snow on an uncleared sidewalk. If the danger was created through natural processes rather than the homeowner's actions, he is not generally held to be at fault for any accidents resulting from that hazard. However, if the homeowner intervenes in such a way that he makes the hazard worse – even if this intervention was intended to reduce the danger and was simply done in an ineffective or negligent fashion – he can be found liable for the injuries of an accident victim who falls on his property afterwards. Commercial property owners also bear liability for injuries resulting from negligent snow clearing efforts.
If you suffer injuries resulting from a fall on ice or snow, it's important to seek the help of an experienced attorney right away. Swift action is necessary to build a strong case in the event you need to pursue an injury claim: photographic evidence and witness statements must be gathered soon after the accident. (In fact, if you have a smartphone that survived your accident, there are worse ideas than taking pictures of the place you fell while waiting for help to arrive.) Your attorney will use the evidence to build a case for the property owner's negligence.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.