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NATURAL ACCUMULATION

Wed, 04 Jun 2014
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Published in Articles

Scenario:

John and his wife stay at a hotel overnight in Wyoming. During the night there is about 2” of snowfall. By morning the parking lot had been plowed, the sidewalks shoveled, salted and sanded. After breakfast John leaves his wife at the counter to pay the bill while he exits to warm up the car. Just before reaching his car he slips, falls and breaks a wrist and strains his back severely. John and his wife report that the sidewalks and parking lot were clear of snow. They both admitted that the overall weather conditions rendered slippery areas. There was no defect in the parking lot itself contributing to John’s fall.

In Wyoming, the general rule is that an occupier of property has no duty to prevent or guard against injuries that result from a natural accumulation of snow. I am referencing Queen v. TA Operating LLC, 2011 WL 11027988 (D. Wyoming), which relies on Eiselein v. K-Mart. Inc. 868 P.2d 895 (Wyo. 1994).

However, as noted in Queen, once an occupier undertakes to remove snow, and “alters the natural state”, the alteration must be performed with reasonable care, and there can be liability for negligently failing to do so. In this case it appears that snow had been shoveled. Accordingly, there is a basis for claiming liability if the hotel was negligent in its removal of the snow in the parking lot. 

Queen also speaks to some other issues raised by the report. John was not able to say for sure how he fell, and appears to only suppose that there was ice that he slipped on and I don’t see anything in the report to definitively state that he claims there was ice as the result of a failure to properly clear the parking lot. Even so, based on a Queen analysis, there would probably be evidence sufficient to prevent us securing a summary judgment.  However, the liability evidence is not strong. If there is a definitive admission on John’s part that he doesn’t know for sure that he fell as the result of ice which he could not see as the result of the parking lot being improperly cleared. 

So basically then, the report analysis is correct. The only thing I would take issue with is that I am not sure if it is a liability factor that there was no requirement that John take the key back to the room. The hotel had cleaned the parking lot, and there was an expectation that guests would be walking in it. I would agree however that there is a chance of demonstrating comparative negligence, which would potentially be a bar to liability.  

Wyoming is, like Texas, a modified comparative negligence state, meaning that if the claimant is more than 50% responsible, the claim is barred. I have attached W.S.A. 1-1-109; Wyoming’s modified comparative negligence statute. In this case, the most important evidence is from his wife, who indicated that it was slippery and that the claimant knew the surface was slippery. 

Assuming there was ice, whether a jury felt was there was more negligence on the hotel would depend also on whether the ice was capable of being seen or detected, the procedures in place for identifying and cleaning snow and slick spots, and how the hotel went about cleaning slick spots. Also, potentially on whether there were other slip and falls due to ice on the parking lot. 

In conclusion, it seems that we have two probable defenses:

  1. Lack of evidence of causation (although this will be problematic based upon the materials in our possession);
  2. Evidence of comparative negligence on the part of the claimant.

Atty. Stephen Blaine Smith
Law Offices of Stephen Blaine Smith
Suite 860
Irving, TX 75062
(214)922-0220 (p) (469)855-2507(c)

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