Slip Sliding Away: Erosion of the Hills and Ridges Doctrine?

By David T. Bush, Esquire

In Harvey v. Rouse Chamberlin, LTD., et al, 901 A.2d 523 (Pa. Super. 2006), the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a decision which appears erode the long-standing “hills and ridges” doctrine under Pennsylvania law, at least in the context of conditions created as a result of human intervention.

The seminal case in hills and ridges is Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623 (Pa. 1962), which held generally that there is no premises liability created by mere general slippery conditions on sidewalks. In Rinaldi, the Court found that in order to recover for a fall on ice or snow covered public sidewalk, the Plaintiff must prove: 1) that snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in a ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling thereon; 2) that the property owner had notice either actual or constructive of the existence of such conditions; and 3) that it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice which caused the Plaintiff to fall. Absent proof of such facts, a plaintiff has no basis for recovery. Subsequent cases expanded the defense to other circumstances. The underlying rational for the rule which holds that the owner or occupier of land is not liable for mere general slippery conditions is that to “require that one’s walks be always free of ice and snow would be to impose an impossible burden in view of the climatic conditions in this hemisphere.”

However, the Harvey decision appears to depart from the rationale of the Courts in prior cases on this issue. Plaintiff Nancy Harvey was a resident of a development which was under construction. The roads of the development had not yet been dedicated and as such were privately owned by the developer, Rouse Chamberlin. Chamberlin had also contracted with the Co-Defendant, J. L. Watts Excavating, to provide plowing services in the development.

It had begun snowing the day before the accident in the early morning hours of January 21, 2001. After it had stopped snowing and roads had been plowed by Watts, the plaintiff decided to take a walk in the development. During her walk she had walked on the sidewalk but at times had to walk in the street as portions of the sidewalks had not been cleared. As the plaintiff approached the sidewalk in front of a particular home, she observed that there was snow on the sidewalk and decided to walk in the road which appeared to be clear and dry. While walking in the road, plaintiff slipped and fell on “black ice” and sustained injuries.

At the close of Plaintiff’s case, the defendants moved for a compulsory non-suit based on the hills and ridges doctrine, which was granted by the trial court because the plaintiff stated that she slipped on mere “black ice”. The trial court concluded that there was no evidence that the black ice was the result of human interference, but rather was a natural condition.

However, the Plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court. In reversing the trial court, the Superior Court placed heavy reliance on Bacsick v. Barnes, 341 A.2d 157 (Pa. Super. 1975), which held that the hills and ridges doctrine may only be applied “in cases where the snow and ice complained of were the result of an entirely natural accumulation following a recent snowfall. In contrast to the trial court’s findings, the Superior Court ruled that the evidence did show that the black ice condition was influenced by human intervention, (i.e., plowing and salting by the contractors) and, thus, was not the result of an entirely natural accumulation. For this reason, the Superior Court ruled that the trial court’s entry of a non-suit was error.

The impact of the Harvey decision on the hills and ridges doctrine is that a property owner who exercises reasonable care by attempting to treat a black ice condition may lose the benefit of the hills and ridges doctrine defense and will be forced to defend his/her actions by showing that reasonable care was exercised. By contrast, a property owner who does nothing to attempt to treat a black ice condition may still be able to successfully assert the hill and ridges doctrine as a defense. One could argue that the Superior Court’s decision can euphemistically be characterized as codifying the principal that “no good deed goes unpunished”. Thus, depending on the facts in a particular case, the Harvey decision could have a significant impact on defense strategy and the burden of proof.