Friday, July 19, 2019

Application of Hills and Ridges Doctrine Results in Summary Judgment; No Duty to Pre-Treat Surfaces

In the case of Dougherty v. Jay, No. 2017-00480-40 (C.P. Bucks Co. April 24, 2019 Trauger, J.), the court entered summary judgment in favor of the Defendant under the hills and ridges doctrine.

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff drove to the Defendants’ residence to pick up one of the Defendants to drive her to work.   At the time, temperatures in the area were below freezing and there was intermittent freezing rain and freezing drizzle that had fallen.   While in the Defendant’s driveway, the Plaintiff got out of the car to retrieve a newspaper from the ground and slipped and fell.  

In its Opinion, the court in this Dougherty case outlined the current status of the hills and ridges doctrine.   The court noted that recovery for a fall on a surface covered by a natural accumulation of ice or snow requires an additional showing of, among other factors, an unreasonable accumulation or “hills and ridges” of ice and/or snow.   The court noted that this doctrine serves to limit the liability of landowners because to require one’s walk to always be free of ice and snow would be to impose an impossible burden in view of the climate in Pennsylvania.  

The Plaintiff attempted to get around the hills and ridges doctrine by arguing that the freezing rain that caused the ice did not qualify as “generally slippery conditions.”   The Plaintiff asserted that localized ice can result in liability when slippery conditions do not exist generally in the community.  

However, the court noted that, in this case, Plaintiff had conceded that his presence on the Defendants’ property was due to freezing rain that was generally falling in the area.   The court also noted that the Plaintiff did not argue that there was any unnatural source of accumulation on the Defendants’ driveway.   

The court additionally rejected the Plaintiffs assertion that pre-treatment of the driveway area could have prevented any dangerous conditions.   Rather, the only duty of a landowner to guard against the transient danger of ice on a pavement is to act within a reasonable time after notice of the condition and to then remove it.  

Given that the court found no evidence of liability presented by the Plaintiff, it requested the Superior Court to affirm the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in this Rule 1925 Opinion.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK

UPDATE:  In a Non-precedential decision issued on March 6, 2020, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed this decision, finding that genuine issues of material fact prevented the entry of summary judgment.  This Non-precedential decision by the Superior Court can be viewed HERE.

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