Business Liability and Maine’s Hazardous Winter Weather Conditions
By: Attorney Matthew Cobb
Dangerous winter weather conditions are simply part of life here in Maine. Each year, snow and ice create hazardous driving conditions and make walking from your car to your destination a risky undertaking. As a result, businesses need to be vigilant in keeping their premises free from slippery conditions during the winter months to ensure the safety of their customers and employees. Maine law has struggled, however, in determining just how far a business is required to go in order to safeguard against the risks and hazards inherent in Maine’s winter weather. Maine Supreme Court cases dealing with liability for snowy and icy conditions date all the way back to the 1800s (see Quimby v. Boston & Maine R.R. Co. (1879)) and continue to the present day (see Davis v. R.C. & Sons Paving, Inc. (2011)).
An example of the challenges businesses can face in meeting their legal obligations with regard to winter weather conditions can be seen in the Law Court’s 2001 decision, Budzko v. One City Center Associates Limited Partnership, 2001 ME 37. The plaintiff in that case was injured when she slipped and fell on an ice-covered stairway landing during a late February winter storm. The plaintiff sued the owner of the building for her injuries and a jury found in favor of the plaintiff. The building owner appealed and argued that because the storm was still in progress when the plaintiff fell, it was not legally required to remove the snow and ice until after the storm was over. The Law Court disagreed and upheld the jury’s verdict. The Court explained that “in ‘slip and fall’ negligence cases, a business owner owes a positive duty of exercising reasonable care in providing reasonably safe premises when it knows or should have known of a risk to customers on its premises.” As a result, because more than 500 people were entering and leaving the building during the storm, the Court found that it should have been reasonably foreseeable to the building owner that someone could be injured by the icy conditions on the premises if left unattended until after the storm had subsided. Given the length and intensity of some Maine winter storms, it can be exceedingly difficult for a business to keep its premises free from snow and ice until a storm has subsided; yet the decision above demonstrates that it may not be reasonable to delay performing such maintenance until after an intense storm has ended.
This is not to say, however, that Maine law does not take into account the challenges winter weather poses in determining the scope of one’s legal obligations. To the contrary, the Law Court has explained that the law in Maine has been shaped over time by the fact that heavy snowfall during the winter months is inevitable. Further, because the volume and frequency of snowfall fluctuates to a high degree in different regions of the state, the Court has, when appropriate, limited and restricted the legal duties of businesses in relation to winter weather.
For example, in Denman v. Peoples Heritage Bank, 1998 ME 12, the plaintiff was injured during late January when she slipped and fell on a public sidewalk in front of a bank. At the time, a municipal ordinance required the bank to keep the sidewalk free from snow and ice. The bank in turn had contracted with a snow removal company to shovel, salt and sand the sidewalk. However, the sidewalk had not yet been cleared of snow and ice when the plaintiff fell. The plaintiff therefore sued both the bank and the snow removal company to recover for her injuries.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s case on summary judgment (to learn more about summary judgment, read this prior blog post). The plaintiff appealed that decision, but the Law Court agreed that the case was properly dismissed. The Court explained that under Maine law “a possessor of land owes a duty to use reasonable care to all persons lawfully on the premises.” Although neither the bank nor the snow removal company owned the land in question the plaintiff argued that their active maintenance of the sidewalk made them “possessors” of that land. The Court found that argument unpersuasive. Instead, the Court observed that the defendants’ actions were taken to comply with the ordinance and not to exert control over the sidewalk; therefore, they were not “possessors” of the sidewalk. Further, the duty to comply with the snow removal ordinance did not give the plaintiff a personal right to sue the bank for its failure to do so. Lastly, the Court observed that the snow removal company had not performed any active maintenance on the day in question, and therefore, there was no evidence that the company had affirmatively created the hazardous conditions that caused the plaintiff to fall.
The Court reached a similar result in a more recent decision: Davis v. R.C. & Sons Paving, Inc., 2011 ME 88. In that case, the plaintiff was a hospital employee who was injured when she slipped and fell in the hospital’s parking lot one morning in late February. The hospital had contracted with a plowing company to plow and sand the hospital’s parking lots. When the plaintiff fell, the plowing company was still plowing the parking lot, but had not yet sanded it.
As in Denman, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the plowing company. The plaintiff appealed and the Law Court again found that the case had been properly dismissed. The Court noted that, like the bank and the snow removal company in Denman, the plowing company was not a “possessor” of the hospital parking lot. Even so, the Court acknowledged that “a non-possessor of land who negligently creates a dangerous condition on the land may be liable for reasonably foreseeable harms.” Unlike the snow removal company in Denman, the plowing company was in the process of performing maintenance on the parking lot when the plaintiff was injured. However, the Court found that the plowing company’s maintenance did not affirmatively create the hazardous condition that caused the plaintiff’s injury; rather, the inclement winter weather had created the layer of thin ice and snow upon which the plaintiff slipped and fell. Therefore, the plowing company was not legally at fault. In reaching its decision, the Court observed that “[i]n determining the existence and scope of a duty in cases involving injuries sustained as a result of snow and ice conditions, we are informed by the annual risks created by the relatively harsh winters in Maine and recognize that requiring landowners or non-possessors to fully protect against hazards created by snow and ice is simply impracticable.”
As indicated above, winter weather conditions can pose many obstacles to businesses in meeting their legal obligations to customers and employees. Although businesses are required to take some affirmative steps to ensure that their premises are maintained in a reasonably safe condition, despite the challenges imposed by winter weather, liability for “slip and fall” injuries is not without its limits under Maine law. The cases discussed here are only a few examples of how Maine courts have dealt with liability in relation to hazardous winter weather conditions. Ultimately, the potential liability your business may face in relation to hazardous winter weather conditions will depend on the unique circumstances of your situation.