UPDATES & ANALYSIS

6.12

Iowa Supreme Court stands by its ‘continuing storm’ doctrine in slip-and-fall suits

by Rox Laird | June 12, 2020

“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” the song says, but when the snow ends, the Iowa Supreme Court says exposure to legal liability begins.

The Court in a decision handed down June 5 rejected an argument that it abandon its 67-year-old “continuing storm” doctrine that relieves a landlord of having to keep sidewalks free of snow and ice while a storm is still in progress.

The continuing storm doctrine is based on a consensus that property owners should not be forced to continue snow or ice removal efforts in the midst of a storm to avoid a lawsuit should someone slip and fall down.

“The overall social costs of requiring people to go outside and clear during a storm exceed the overall social benefits of cleared passageways that will soon be covered over by additional accumulation,” the Court said in Gries v. Ames Ecumencial Housing. “This social consensus is reflected in ordinances around our state that do not require land possessors to remove snow from sidewalks until after the last snow accumulation.”

Debra Gries appealed a Story County District Court ruling dismissing her negligence suit against her landlord after she fell on an icy sidewalk outside her apartment and broke her ankle. The trial court dismissed the suit on summary judgment, concluding that the landlord had no duty at the time of Gries’ fall to treat the sidewalk based on testimony showing there was a “continuous winter storm at the time in question.”

Although the Court — in a 6-1 opinion written by Justice Christopher McDonald and joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Dana Oxley, and Matthew McDermott — stood by its continuing-storm doctrine, it said the doctrine was wrongly applied in this case. Justice Brent Appel wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

While there were factual discrepancies in testimony on the actual weather conditions that day, the trial court concluded “that at all relevant times and at the location of plaintiff’s apartment the air temperature fluctuated above and below the freezing point and there was a continuous period of some form of precipitation falling.”

But the Supreme Court said that was a misapplication of the continuing storm doctrine.

“The doctrine is not ‘the continuing mist doctrine,’ ” McDonald wrote. “Mere precipitation is not enough to constitute a storm sufficient to relieve a land possessor of the duty to remove or ameliorate the natural accumulation of snow or ice. Instead, there must be meaningful, ongoing accumulation of snow or ice. Only a weather event satisfying this standard constitutes a ‘storm’ for the purposes of the continuing storm doctrine.”

And when, as in this case, there is a factual dispute about the progress of a storm, the Court said the best course is to let the jury decide.

That, in fact, should happen in all such cases, Justice Appel wrote his concurring opinion. Appel agreed with the Court’s reversing the dismissal of Gries’ suit but dissented from the majority’s adherence to the “continued viability of the archaic, unworkable, and outmoded continuing storm doctrine. Indeed, the slicing and dicing in this case is an excellent example of why the doctrine should be abandoned.”

The continuing storm doctrine “is based on the proposition that jurors are incapable of sorting through negligent handling of snow and ice by premises owners from situations where it would be unreasonable to expect a property owner from abating hazards,” Appel wrote.

“Apparently, the fear is that jurors in Iowa would hold landlords liable when they could not reasonably be considered at fault. But in Iowa, just about everybody, at some time in their lives, has shoveled snow, put down ice melt, and stared out the window wondering what next steps to take. I see no reason to believe that Iowa jurors lack the capability to evaluate the reasonability of a premises owner’s actions during inclement conditions.”

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