CHICAGO — Years ago, you had a perfect excuse for not shoveling your snowy sidewalk: You weren't liable if someone slipped because you didn't cause the slippery conditions.
And what about now? Well, in Chicago, that "natural accumulation" doesn't hold up anymore.
The topic of "who's liable for slippery, snowy sidewalk accidents" reared its head at a protest outside of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home Tuesday, of all places.
Protesters had taken to Emanuel's home but were confined by police to the sidewalk, which had not been shoveled. The group mocked Emanuel for not shoveling his snow, and one protester said he slipped on the ice and called an ambulance to the scene, as others said they should sue Emanuel for the slippery conditions outside his home.
But there is no little legal recourse for people who slip on unshoveled sidewalks, because state courts have continually upheld the "natural accumulation" law that says homeowners can't be held liable because they didn't put the snow there.
And what if a protester slipped on Emanuel's freshly shoveled sidewalk? Thanks to a city ordinance, the person would have no standing to sue, according to experts and a review of city and state laws.
Ever since that "natural accumulation" precedent was known to Chicagoans, many sidewalks became impassable, because residents knew they weren't responsible for the snowfall and so had no legal obligation to remove it. That meant the city had a problem on its hands, said Francis Patrick Murphy, a partner at Corboy & Demetrio, a leading personal injury law firm in the city.
"Nobody came out [to shovel]," Murphy said. "CDOT would plow and people walked in the roadway. It wasn't safe."
So the city wrote an ordinance saying property owners and tenants had to remove snow from adjacent sidewalks.
To entice residents to get out and clear sidewalks, Murphy said the city passed a "quid-pro-quo" — or, legal protection for shovelers. The legal protection clause was added to the city's snow removal ordinance after the Blizzard of 1979, according to the Tribune.
The city's ordinance on liability for snow shovelers:
"Any person who removes snow or ice from the public sidewalk or street, shall not, as a result of his acts or omissions in such removal, be liable for civil damages. This section does not apply to acts or omissions amounting to wilful or wanton misconduct in such snow or ice removal."
Murphy said he could not think of a case where a Chicago resident was sued — successfully or unsuccessfully — for leaving dangerous conditions after shoveling snow. That's likely because it would be hard to prove that someone knowingly and maliciously created a dangerous environment for pedestrians after shoveling.
"If you can show the homeowner negligently removed snow, then you could be held liable," Murphy said. "I can't imagine a scenario where someone shovels snow recklessly."
The city's snow-removal ordinance said sidewalks at or narrower than 5 feet should be completely cleared, but any sidewalk wider than 5 feet only needs to be cleared to that amount. But so long as you are clearing a walkable path, Murphy said a homeowner shouldn't be liable for any damages and probably won't get ticketed.
The liability for a person slipping on a cleared sidewalk may not have been tested in court, but the "natural accumulation" rule has been put to the test many times, Murphy said.
The Illinois Supreme Court in 2010 reaffirmed the natural accumulation law in the case of Krywin v. Chicago Transit Authority. Marianna Krywin slipped on the Sheffield Red Line platform after exiting an "L" train in 2005.
She sued, saying the CTA hadn't done enough to ensure passengers could get on and off trains safely. But the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, saying the CTA had no legal basis to clear snow that had accumulated on its property naturally.
Murphy said there is another similar law many don't know about: that of "tracked in water."
You can sue a store for slipping on a liquid that was left on the floor by a mop or broken product, but not if the slippery conditions were "tracked in," meaning brought in by customers who trudged through a snowy or rainy parking lot.
"If you bring it in on your own boots, Jewel is not responsible," Murphy said.
So what does all of this mean for Chicago? It means you have very few excuses to not shovel your snow. (Unless you are elderly or disabled, in which case the city can help you out.)
But sure, if you don't shovel your snow and get a ticket and you want to challenge it in court, it could very well be dismissed if the judge uphold's the state's natural accumulation clause.
"It's such an iron-clad law," Murphy said of the natural accumulation rule. "They had to make an ordinance requiring you to shovel, but they gave you immunity."
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