Just in time for another extended snowfall, on February 5, 2014 the Iowa Court of Appeals issued Iowa’s latest premises liability decision, Rochford v. G.K. Development, Inc., regarding a landowner’s possible personal injury or wrongful death liability for failing to timely remove snow or ice that causes a pedestrian to fall. This decision covers a slightly different aspect of this law, known as the “continuing storm” doctrine, than I’ve previously discussed. The focal point of the Rochford decision is landowners’ responsibility for clearing ice or snow while a storm is still occurring and during the period immediately after a storm ends.
Rochford was filed by Karen and Jude Rochford, who sued G.K. Development, owner of the College Square Mall in Cedar Falls, over injuries Karen sustained when she fell on an icy sidewalk outside the mall. One issue the court discussed was whether G.K. Development was allowed to wait for the end of a batch of freezing rain before beginning ice removal efforts. The trial court had dismissed the case because it believed that G.K. Development had no obligation to attempt to remove any ice from the sidewalks until the freezing rain ended.
At the center of the debate in this case was the “continuing storm” doctrine. Under the continuing storm rule, a property owner is entitled to wait until the end of a storm and a reasonable time afterwards before beginning efforts to remove ice or snow. The theory behind that doctrine is that the changing snow and ice conditions that can occur during a storm make it inexpedient and impractical to take effective remedial action during a storm.
The Rochfords argued that a period of wind and freezing rain does not constitute the type of “storm” that the continuing storm doctrine applies to. The Iowa Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the continuing storm doctrine applies to more types of weather situations than just blizzards. The doctrine can apply to less severe, but still inclement, weather. The court opined that the weather at the time of Karen’s fall, regardless of what label was placed on the weather, was sufficient to immunize G.K. Development under the continuing storm doctrine: “The evidence here establishes that at the time of the plaintiff’s fall at around 4:00 p.m. freezing rain was falling and continued falling until around 10:30 p.m. when the temperature rose above freezing. This freezing rain resulted in the sidewalks icing over, leading to Karen’s fall. The freezing rain had not stopped before Karen’s fall, so the landlord was not yet under a duty to take steps to remove the ice. Whatever this ‘weather event’ is called, we find it was of sufficient significance to qualify for the application of the continuing storm doctrine.”
Rochford highlights a few things that must be considered in these types of snow and ice cases. First, is the weather event “of sufficient significance” to trigger the continuing storm doctrine’s application? In other words, on a scale from a raging blizzard to a few snow flurries, at what point does the weather become bad enough that property owners are allowed to throw up their hands and discontinue efforts to remove snow or ice? Second, even if a weather event is significant enough to implicate the continuing storm rule, had the weather ended and a reasonable amount of time passed before the injured person fell on the snow or ice?By Harley Erbe