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Injured slipping on an icy sidewalk? Liability rules clarified

A lot of people slip and fall on ice and snow each winter here in Chicago. Most of the time it's no big deal, but sometimes people are injured pretty seriously. If this happens to you, you're in for some major cost and trouble.

In theory, the party responsible for clearing the ice and snow could be liable for your injuries. Yet snow and ice are natural conditions, right? We all know there will be inconvenient snow heaps and unexpected slippery spots that could bring about a spill. When is it fair to hold someone responsible for your slip-and-fall?

The Illinois Supreme Court just released an opinion that lays out the rules -- at least the rules as under the Illinois Snow and Ice Removal Act.

The classic rules of premises liability hold negligent landlords responsible for injury

The basic principle of premises liability law is this: property owners have a legal duty to keep their premises reasonably safe, so if someone gets hurt because a property owner was negligent, the property owner should have to compensate the injured person.

When it comes to snow and ice, though, property owners and managers aren't always able to clear all the snow and ice before tenants and visitors come on scene. Understanding these natural difficulties, the Illinois legislature passed a law called the Snow and Ice Removal Act, which immunizes property owners from liability for injuries caused by snow and ice.

Does that mean no one can ever sue for compensation after slipping on ice and snow?

No. Fair or unfair, the Snow and Ice Removal Act really does provide property owners with immunity to liability claims when someone slips and is injured on their property due to ice and snow. In other words, landlords and property owners can't be sued for slip-and-fall injuries due to snow and ice even if they were negligent in removing the snow and ice.

That said, landlords and property owners can't just ignore the problem. As the recent opinion makes clear, they can still be held responsible if negligent maintenance, as opposed to negligent snow and ice removal itself, caused or contributed to the accident.

In this case, the plaintiff brought evidence that longstanding drainage issues and improperly maintained downspouts were causing water to pool and ice to accumulate on the sidewalk even after snow had been removed. Since the icy sidewalk she slipped on was caused by this drainage problem rather than any failure by the landlord to shovel the sidewalks after a storm, the Snow and Ice Removal Act did not apply. The high court sent the case back to trial for reevaluation under the plaintiff's theory.

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