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No duty to remove snow from parking lot while snow is still falling.

Where plaintiff slipped on ice in a hotel parking lot during a snowstorm, summary judgment for defendant hotel was affirmed.

In Chittenden v. BRE/LQ Properties, LLC, No. M2019-01990-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 15, 2020), plaintiff checked into defendant hotel during a snowfall that had already produced two inches of snow on the ground. It was still snowing when plaintiff went to his hotel room. When plaintiff left his room fifteen minutes later, it was still snowing, and he slipped in the parking lot. Plaintiff brought this premises liability action, and the trial court granted summary judgment, which was affirmed on appeal.

While property owners have a  “duty to use reasonable care to protect persons on [their] property from unreasonable risks…, [they] are not required to keep their premises free of natural accumulations of snow and ice at all times but rather…they are expected to take reasonable steps to remove snow and ice within a reasonable time after it has formed or accumulated.” (internal citation omitted). Here, it was undisputed that the snow was still falling when plaintiff fell. Plaintiff argued that the snow could not be characterized as “ongoing” because it stopped 20-30 minutes after his fall, but the Court rejected this argument, finding that “[t]he fact that the snow did not subside for another twenty to thirty minutes makes the snow ‘ongoing’ by definition.” Thus, the precedent above applied and defendant did not have a duty to remove the accumulated snow while it was still falling.

Plaintiff argued that even if there was no duty to remove the snow, defendant had a “duty to warn the public of the existence of ice in the parking lot.” The Court noted the open and obvious nature of the accumulated snow, and it cited a similar case where it had “held that defendant did not act unreasonably when it decided not to begin its efforts to remove the accumulated snow or to survey its property for abnormally dangerous conditions until the weather subsided, given the obvious nature of the snow accumulation.” (internal citation omitted). The Court ruled that the same logic applied here, and it “was reasonable for [defendant] to wait until the snow subsided to examine the property in order to take measures to remedy or warn of dangerous conditions.”

Last, plaintiff argued that by deciding to spread ice melt on the parking lot, defendant assumed a duty in this case. The Court quickly rejected this assertion, noting that plaintiff cited “no authority for the proposition that ordinary maintenance of a property imposes a special duty on a landowner beyond that imposed by premises liability law,” and that there was no evidence that defendant’s actions were unreasonable.

Because the snow was still falling when plaintiff fell and defendant thus had no duty to remove the accumulated snow or begin taking measures to examine its property, summary judgment was affirmed.

There are many Tennessee cases addressing snow and ice premises liability law. Before taking such a case, it’s important to review the facts of the case in light of prior opinions.

NOTE:  this opinion was released seven days after oral argument.  Please note that this opinion has been designated as a “memorandum opinion” under Rule 10 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals.

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