Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Say It Ain't Snow: Summary Judgment Granted in Commercial Premises Slip and Fall Case

On January 11, 2011, Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas issued an opinion in the slip and fall case of Weinkopff v. Mericle, No. 2008 CV 568 (Lacka. Co. Jan. 11, 2011, Nealon, J.), in which he thoroughly reviewed both the liabilities of a commercial landlord and tenant under a lease agreement and the ongoing validity of the Hills and Ridges Doctrine.

According to the opinion, the record revealed that, on March 7, 2007, Weinkopff was employed by RCN Telecom Services, Inc. which leased office space in Mericle’s building.

Due to a combination of ongoing wintry weather and continuing foot traffic on the day of the incident, the floor mats located at the entrance to the Mericle building had snow and ice present on them. As the Plaintiff walked in from the winter conditions and across the first floor lobby area of the building en route to work at approximately 9:00 a.m., she slipped and fell on water which had originated from the snow and ice that was caused by the continuous precipitation that day and which melted in the lobby area.

The Plaintiff sued Mericle and defendant Charles E. Petras d/b/a Charles E. Petras Landscape Design (“Petras”) who had been retained by Mericle to clear snow and ice from the property.

Mericle joined its tenant RCN, i.e. the Plaintiff's employer, as an additional defendant. Mericle, as the landlord Defendant asserted that the Mericle-RCN lease agreement obligated RCN to maintain the lobby and common areas free from liquid or other hazards.

This matter came before Judge Nealon by way of Mericle's filing of a motion for summary judgment.

In his Opinion, Judge Nealon reviewed in great detail the application of the law of contracts pertaining to the interpretation of the various duties imposed upon a landlord and a tenant under the terms of a commercial lease. In the end, the court viewed the contractual language of the lease agreements as placing the duty upon RCN to maintain the lobby floor where the Plaintiff fell.

Judge Nealon also rejected the Plaintiff's attempt to impose liability against Mericle as the landlord defendant under the Hills and Ridges Doctrine. After providing a thorough analysis of the current status of that doctrine under Pennsylvania law, the court rejected the Plaintiff's contentions in this regard.

Judge Nealon noted that even though snow was tracked into the building and had accumulated on the floor mats inside the doors of the building, the evidence was that the Plaintiff slipped and fell on a pool of water in the lobby of the building, and not on any hill or ridge of ice or snow.

As such, the court granted the motion for summary judgment of the landlord Defendant, Mericle, for the reasons noted above.

I highly recommend reviewing this case for its in-depth analysis of landlord-tenant liability in slip and fall matters in the commercial context as well as the continuing validity of the Hills and Ridges Doctrine. This Opinion could come in handy and serve to kickstart your research the next time you find yourself faced with similar issues.

Anyone desiring a copy of this Opinion may contact me at
Photo: Lackawanna County Courthouse where Judge Terrence R. Nealon sits.

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