Superior Court affirms lower court's jury instructions in slip and fall case

By Jim Boyle | Aug 7, 2014

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has denied the appeal of a Luzerne County man who

argued that improper jury instructions in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas led to a verdict rendered against him in a personal injury lawsuit.

In November 2010, Edward Stobodzian sued PNC Bank, Varsity Lawn Care and J&J Snowplowing for injuries he received when he slipped and fell while delivering coins to the Hazelton branch of PNC Bank on Feb. 11, 2010, after the area experienced heavy snowfall. His complaint held the defendants negligent for allowing slippery conditions to exist on the sidewalk.

During testimony, Jason Samler of J&J Snowplowing said that the snowfall ended before 9 a.m. Feb. 11 and about 22 inches had accumulated in the area. Stobodzian testified that the parking lot and grounds of the bank were covered in snow, with a base of ice under the snow.

According to the opinion, Edward Stobodzian had argued that the trial court judge should not have instructed the jury to consider the so-call "hills and ridges doctrine" before deliberations. The doctrine protects business owners from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from ice and snow where the owner has not permitted the ice and snow to accumulate unreasonably in ridges or elevations.

The judge further instructed the jury that one in possession of land is required to remove ice and snow that has accumulated on the public walking surface abutting his or her property within a reasonable time after he or she is on notice that a dangerous condition exists.

To establish liability upon the landowner, the plaintiff must prove that each of the following three essentials was present:

  • First, that ice and snow had accumulated on the walking surface in ridges or elevations that unreasonably obstructed travel and were a danger to persons traveling on the walk.

  • Second, that the property owner knew or should have known of the existence of such conditions.

  • Third, that it was the dangerous accumulation of ice and snow that caused the plaintiff to fall.

Business owners are generally held liable for slip and falls on ice when there are isolated patches of ice on otherwise cleared walkways or if a leaky pipe from poor property maintenance results in an icy condition. The hills and ridges doctrine recognizes the fact that it is near impossible to expect a business owner to maintain a walkway completely cleared of snow and ice during or immediately after snowfall.

Testimony from witnesses on both sides confirmed to the trial judge that the snow and icy conditions were a result of a natural accumulation from a two-day storm. Samler told the court that road conditions were "deplorable," while Stobodzian said it was a deep mixture of dark gray ice and snow.

Stobodzian's contention rested on whether the accumulation on the bank grounds was a natural occurrence or man-made. He argued that testimony showed that cars and trucks pulling into the parking lot would drag in snow and slush. The Superior Court acknowledged the testimony, but countered that the snow and slush would remain mostly by the parking lot entrance.

"Although Stobodzian sought to argue at trial that the slush in the parking lot was an
artificial condition created by human intervention," wrote Superior Court Anne Lazarus, "uncontradicted testimony established that generally slippery conditions existed in the community due to a natural accumulation of snow on the day Stobodzian fell. Therefore, a
hills and ridges instruction was appropriate."

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