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Falling Ice Warning Issued as Danger From Above Looms

By  David Matthews and Mauricio Peña | February 3, 2015 5:28am 

 Pedestrians passing a word of caution on Michigan Avenue. 
Pedestrians passing a word of caution on Michigan Avenue. 
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DNAinfo/David Matthews

DOWNTOWN — Where there's snow, there's ice. 

City officials warned of falling ice Monday following the historic storm that dumped more than 19 inches of snow on Chicago over the weekend. During a news conference, Department of Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis put the onus on landlords to protect Downtown pedestrians. 

"The department is prepared to inspect reports of falling ice," Davis said. "The protocol is for the property owners and building managers to cordon off the area and to place signs, caution signs, warning of these conditions."

Dave Matthews says the signs might not offer much legal protection for property owners:

Though a common winter phenomenon, falling ice from skyscrapers can prove fatal, as it did in 1994 when a 100-pound block took the life of a Wisconsin man here. Despite the prevalence of warning signs Downtown, falling ice placards aren't enough in the eyes of many to protect building owners from a lawsuit. 

"I always thought that the signs you see on the sidewalk that say 'Watch out for falling ice' are incredibly stupid," said Chicago lawyer Mark Rosenbaum, who represents about 100 condominium associations across the city. "Who walks around looking straight up to see whether there’s falling ice?"

Chicago-based personal injury lawyer Ted McNabola agreed, especially when the building has a "propensity" for falling ice.

"Could a building that knows it has problems with falling ice avoid liability by simply putting up a sign? I would say probably not," he said.

McNabola said that before he started his personal injury practice, he once defended a Chicago building that was sued by a victim of falling ice. The matter was settled out of court with a "minor" payout from the building's insurance company, he said.

Rosenbaum said he had seen "maybe a half dozen" falling ice lawsuits in his three decades of practicing condominium law. He said those disputes were also handled by condominium insurance carriers.

The 1994 death marked the most recent fatal falling ice event in Chicago. 

There are no formal records of falling ice, but there is research showing some buildings are more susceptible to it than others. In a 2012 paper, two executives at a Canadian architectural consulting firm determined that some energy-saving materials in new buildings are more likely to let ice slip.

The duo found falling ice tends to be caused by cumulative factors, but common issues included insulated glass panels that capture heat, as well as window sills and ledges that collect ice. 

"Some facades literally promote hazardous ice formation," said Michael Carter and Roman Stangl of Northern Microclimate Inc.

Buildings could protect themselves, and pedestrians, by diverting traffic or erecting protective barriers like scaffolding, yet the Carter/Stangl paper acknowledged those options are often "extremely costly," "difficult to implement," or "a contradiction of the original design."

The paper was published in the journal of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. The journal's editor, Daniel Safarik, echoed the same caution as the Department of Buildings. 

"People put signs out because people are litigious," Safarik said. "How do you prepare for this? The same way you prepare for when you go outside for any cold day. Just be observant."

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