Slip and Fall Cases on Snow and Ice: Will You Win?

I stumbled on a Metro Verdicts Monthly from last year that examined the success plaintiffs have at trial in slip and fall cases on snow and ice. In Maryland defendants prevailed 62% of the time.

The difficulty in these cases often lies not with the issue of whether the defendant was negligent, but whether the plaintiff assumed the risk because he/she appreciated the danger of walking on the snow/ice. Under Maryland law, this is assumption of the risk, unless the plaintiff lacked the free will to avoid the danger. This is presumably the case when going to work, entering or leaving your home, and tending to other necessities of life. Moreover, the fact that no reasonable alternative path was available does not reduce the free will standard.

Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided the case of Morgan State University v. Walker. In this case, Plaintiff Pamela R. Walker, brought a personal injury lawsuit against Morgan State University alleging that it negligently failed to remove snow from a parking lot during the last great Maryland blizzard in 2003. You know how the story goes from here. Plaintiff was visiting her daughter, walked across the icy parking lot and severely fractured her leg, resulting in about $50,000 in medical bills and, presumably, a permanent injury.

The Baltimore City Circuit Court (I’m not sure who the Judge was) found that Ms. Walker assumed the risk as a matter of law and granted summary judgment to Morgan State University. The Court of Special Appeals reversed, finding that the voluntariness of Ms. Walker’s action was a question for the jury.

The Maryland Court of Appeals disagreed with the Court of Special Appeals, and agreed with the trial court’s finding that Ms. Walker assumed the risk of her injuries. While I doubt it was integral to the court’s opinion, the court did note that Ms. Walker had been wearing Timberland boots and stated that “I don’t have any problem with walking or anything like that. Actually, I’m a daredevil to be honest with you.” I cannot imagine Ms. Walker’s attorney was enjoying that testimony at her deposition. You don’t want your client professing to be Evel Knievel (or maybe David Blaine for you younger folks) in a case where the issue is whether you assumed the risk of your injuries.

My partner, Laura G. Zois, tried a case in Anne Arundel County for a slip and fall during the same blizzard as Ms. Walker. The Plaintiff in that case was walking along a common area sidewalk that was not cleared and fell, fracturing her left wrist. Plaintiff incurred $6,554.72 in medical bills. The Defendant made a settlement offer before the trial of $18,750 (State Farm was the insurance company). The jury awarded our client $370,577.

The salient difference between Walker and our case is that our client was walking to her home from her car after working as a neonatal nurse at St. Agnes Hospital. Ms. Walker, on the other hand, was visiting her daughter, a noble endeavor but certainly not one where Plaintiff can argue that she had no choice but to make that trip.

The take home message is that you have to carefully consider the facts before accepting a case. Theattorney in this case was no doubt seduced by the fact that Ms. Walker had a good damages case. There is no question the woman was seriously injured. But Maryland law is tough on these slip and fall cases on ice and snow and each case has to be carefully evaluated to make sure that the prospective client did not assume the risk of his or her injuries.

  • Tony

    Hat tip to your partner for that verdict in AA County. That’s quite a judgment especially if it was mainly for pain and suffering (you don’t say if there was any serious claim for past and future economic loss, or permanency as a result of the injury). I’m also guessing that the jury was really angry at somebody — either the defendant or the defendant’s lawyer.

    Yes, slip and fall cases are tough “sledding” for plaintiffs. As you say, most of them result in verdicts for defendants, and that doesn’t count the majority of cases where defendants win on motion. I prepared every slip and fall case I had with an eye to a motion for summary judgment — there were so many avenues to pursue depending on the facts, i.e. contrib., assump. of risk, no notice, ownership, joint-tortfeasor, etc.

  • Ron Miller

    The way Tony frames this is how I wish I would have framed it: you should prepare any slip and fall case wiht an eye towards a motion for summary judgment.

  • jsmdlawyer

    I think the Morgan State case may well signal the death of snow and ice cases in Maryland. According to Judge Greene, if you know there’s snow and ice on the ground, walking on it anyway is assumption of risk as a matter of law. In a remarkable passage, he writes:

    “Moreover, Respondent had alternatives in this case-as soon as she heard the ice underneath her tires, she could have turned her car around and gone home or arranged an alternative plan by which to get her daughter money, instead of voluntarily proceeding in the face of danger by leaving her car and traversing across ice and snow.”

    I had always assumed (as had every trial judge before whom I argued this point) that if there was no alternative route for a plaintiff to take, then assumption of risk did not apply. This case guts that proposition. Now, if you know there’s snow on the ground, you are under a duty to “turn around and go home” and figure some other way to get where you wanted to go. This is, as a practical matter, a preposterous notion that nobody will ever follow.

    In light of this case, I am concerned that the assumption of risk defense will now swallow, whole, the duty to clear ice and snow from public premises.

  • shanneon koehlerschmidt

    i slipped and fell this year at the bank of america dur to negligent upkeep also do I still have a case. I had a lawyer look at it and this was brought to his attention which he didnt know about

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