Moving in the winter can be treacherous if you live in a cold climate, and accidents are prone to happen when carrying heavy furniture and boxes across slippery or icy surfaces. This is bad news for everybody involved, but in the instances of serious injury these scenarios leave property owners open to some forms of legal liability. This is known as premise liability. However, not all forms of liability apply, and there are several ways to limit the liability a property owner faces.
Typically, for premise liability to apply, the following conditions must be met:
- The defendant must possess the land or premise. This can include renters who are living at the property.
- The plaintiff must be an invitee (customer at a store) or licensee (guest of the owner) to be protected by premise liability. Traditionally, trespassers were not protected under premise liability, but the California Supreme Court case, Rowland v. Christian, changed the precedent.
- There must be negligence, a breach of duty of care, or some other wrongful act committed by the defendant or property owner. In some rarer cases this also included acts committed by a third party on the premises.
What does this have to do with somebody being injured while moving in the winter? In many states, it’s important to know how foreseeable the cause of an injury is, and if the property owner did anything to negate that cause. Let’s say you’re the owner of a small apartment complex and you’ve just rented an upstairs room. It’s December, and ice is prone to gathering at the foot of a couple particular staircases. The new tenant slips while carrying a box, falls and breaks a bone. In this scenario you’re likely liable unless you took precautions to prevent the injury (like spreading de-icing salt by the stairs, putting up caution signs, physically removing the ice, etc.). In some states the tenant is at fault regardless, but in most you’ll be open to a tort case unless you make an effort to avoid such occurrences.
The property owner is also liable if any property damage or malfunction causes an injury, such as a broken railing or even a falling icicle. You’ll also likely be liable if another tenant injuries the new one. Suppose the people in 12B have two young children, and they happen to throw snowballs at the new tenant. That tenant gets hurt by slipping when dodging the snowballs. It spells trouble for everybody involved.
Brian Kelly, General Manager of Boston-area moving company You Move Me, suggests taking special precautions when moving in the winter. “When we make our welcome call before the move, we remind customers to clear a path to the door if possible. But we carry a shovel on every truck.” Using ice melt the night before your move is highly recommended, and he encourages wearing proper non-slip footwear. His team protects the home’s interior floor (which is covered), sweeping and removing any salt or debris that accumulates. Hardwood and tile can become slick with just trace amounts of moisture. “Wet leaves are as slippery as black ice,” says Kelly.
Premise liability is consistent throughout the year, so winter’s arrival doesn’t make property responsibility any different. Pay attention to any ice that forms, knock down those pesky icicles, and place a few signs around the property.
If you’re showing an open house, be sure to sprinkle some salt around the walkways about an hour or two prior to the tour.