Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!: Premises Liability for Ice and Snow on Sidewalks and Walkways

One of the more enduring legal myths in this state is that homeowners are liable to pedestrians who slip and fall on ice or snow on their sidewalks. In truth, fairly consistent decisions in our courts this past decade have whittled away any vestiges of such liability. As it stands today, a homeowner will generally not be liable for any “natural” accumulation of ice, snow, mud or slime on their sidewalks.

Not surprisingly, given this state’s climate, it was mud rather than snow which was the subject of one of the Texas Supreme Court’s first forays into this issue. M.O. Dental Lab v. Rape, 139 S.W.3d 671 (Tex. 2004) involved injuries sustained by a patient of a dental lab who slipped on mud which had accumulated in a dentist’s parking lot after a rainfall. In holding that property owners have no liability for injuries associated with such natural accumulations of mud, the Texas Supreme Court held:

  • Holding a landowner accountable for naturally accumulating mud that remains in its natural state would be a heavy burden because rain is beyond the control of landowners. Most invitees in Texas will encounter natural conditions involving ordinary mud regularly, and accidents involving naturally accumulating mud and dirt are bound to happen, regardless of the precautions taken by landowners.

M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676. Subsequent decisions in our courts of appeals, applying the reasoning from M.O. Dental Lab, have found slip and falls caused by accumulations of ice, snow and “slime” to similarly be unactionable. See e.g Griffin v. 1438, Ltd., 2004 Tex. App. LEXIS 6403, at *10 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth July 15, 2004, no pet.) (mem. op.) (natural accumulation of frozen precipitation on parking lot is not unreasonably dangerous condition); Eubanks v. Pappas Rests., Inc., 212 S.W.3d 838, 840-41 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.) (slime or mud accumulating naturally is not unreasonably dangerous condition); Haney v. Jerry’s GM, Ltd., 2009 Tex. App. LEXIS 1056, at *7 (Tex. App.—El Paso Feb. 12, 2009, no pet.) (“Naturally forming ice is not an unreasonably dangerous condition that would impose liability on a premises owner/operator”). It is not, therefore, surprising that when it next took up the issue, the Texas Supreme Court held that homeowners have no liability for naturally occurring accumulations of ice. See Scott & White Mem. Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 414 (Tex. 2010).

It is important to note, however, that the holdings of these courts in general apply only to “naturally occurring” ice or snow “that accumulates without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact.” Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414 (Tex. 2010) As the Court in Fair explained, “a natural accumulation of ice…is one which accumulates as a result of an act of nature…whereas an [u]nnatural accumulation…refer[s] to causes and factors other than the inclement weather conditions…i.e., to causes other than the meteorological forces of nature.” Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414. See also Id. (natural accumulation of ice is one which occurs “without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact “). Ice on sidewalks that results from frozen sprinkler runoff, leaking pipes, et.al., may therefore subject a homeowner to liability. So might hazards on the owner’s property, known to him, which become dangerously concealed by the ice or snow. See Id. (“[An] exception would arise when accumulated snow or ice covers a normally open and obvious danger, such as a deep hole in a parking lot or an eight-inch raised concrete bumper.”). Further, the natural accumulation rule applies only to outdoor accumulations. Natural rain, for example, that makes its way into a premises may properly be viewed as an unreasonably dangerous condition, since “[t]his is not a natural location nor is it a natural manner for rain to accumulate.” Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Sparkman, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 13293, 6 (Tex. App. —Fort Worth 2014, pet. filed).

See e.g. Scott & White Mem. Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 413 (Tex. 2010) (“The Fairs argue that ice should be treated differently than mud because, unlike mud, icy conditions occur rarely in Texas.”).