Snow and Ice Fall-Down Cases in Tennessee

In Williams v. City of Jamestown, No. M2015-00322-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2016), the trial court dismissed a GTLA premises liability claim after a bench trial, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Plaintiff was visiting the county courthouse and adjacent jail when he slipped and fell on ice in the parking area. Snow had begun falling the night before and accumulated approximately six inches by the time plaintiff went out the next day. The city had scraped and salted the roads and parking areas the night the snow began, and had been working since 5:30 a.m. on the day the fall occurred. When plaintiff drove into the courthouse parking lot, he noticed that the areas where the sun was hitting the ground were relatively free of snow, but he testified that he could only find a parking space in the shadowed area. Plaintiff entered and left the courthouse without incident, then walked over to the adjacent jail. On his way to the jail he walked “between a rock wall that bounded the courthouse grounds and the curb stops in the parking area,” which plaintiff stated was covered in snow and slush, but when leaving he “decided to walk out in the parking area” rather than following the same path. While in the parking area, plaintiff “turned his gaze from his feet to” a woman he met, and at that point slipped and fell on the ice.

During the bench trial, plaintiff admitted that there were six inches of snow on the ground that day and that “by venturing out, he was taking a serious risk.” He also testified that he did not have to go out that day. Further, evidence showed that the parking area had been scraped early that morning; the parking area had been further worked on at 10:00 am (approximately 3 hours before the fall); and that due to the 24 degree temperature, “it would have been difficult to keep salt treated areas from refreezing.”

The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claim, finding that the city did not breach its duty of care to plaintiff, and that even if there were a breach, plaintiff was more than fifty percent at fault. In affirming dismissal, the Court of Appeals analyzed only the issue of whether the city breached its duty of care.

When cases involve snow or ice, the Court noted that Tennessee common law holds:

property owners are expected to take reasonable steps to remove snow and ice within a reasonable time after it has formed or accumulated. We have previously held that what is reasonable depends upon, among other things, (1) the length of time the accumulation has been present, (2) the amount of the accumulation, (3) whether the accumulation could be, as a practical matter, removed, (4) the cost of removal, and (5) the foreseeability of injury.

(internal quotations and citations omitted). Here, in light of the amount of accumulation, the city’s efforts to make the area as safe as possible, and the temperature at the time of the incident, the Court found that “the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that the City did not breach its duty of reasonable care to [plaintiff].” Further, the Court rejected plaintiff’s claim that “he was forced to walk in the icy parking lot,” as plaintiff himself had testified that he went into the jail using a path between the curb stops and rock wall. Accordingly, the dismissal was affirmed.

The facts of this case were simply not on plaintiff’s side. The evidence showed that plaintiff did not have to go out but chose to in a rather large snow, that he parked in the area of the parking lot that was in the shade and thus not clear, that he chose to walk in the parking lot rather than take a less icy route, and that the city had made reasonable efforts to clear the parking lot. Although it is certainly possible for a property owner to be liable to an injured party who slips on ice in a parking lot, the court found that the facts here did not show a breach of the duty of care.

One other note here—plaintiff also argued on appeal that the “final order [did] not accurately reflect the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law announced on the record at the conclusion of the trial,” apparently because the court adopted a proposed order drafted by defense counsel rather than drafting its own order. The Court of Appeals found the order here sufficient because “the findings and conclusions…accurately reflect[ed] the decision of the trial court” and because “the record [did] not create doubt that the decision represent[ed] the trial court’s own deliberations and decision,” although the Court also noted that the Supreme Court has expressed a preference for trial courts to draft their own orders. (citations omitted). As lawyers, it’s important to remember that when a trial court asks you to draft a proposed order you must be careful to ensure that it accurately reflects the court’s rulings and fact findings, as the order may well be challenged on appeal.