Natural Accumulation Doctrine Takes a Hit
March 19, 2014
By Jacqueline Gharapour Wernz and Jamel Greer*
Winter may almost be over, but a recent Illinois Appellate Court case makes clear that school districts should remain vigilant in preventing and warning against slippery floors. In February, an Illinois Appellate Court allowed a slip and fall claim to go forward against a school district despite the school district’s attempt to defend its actions under the “natural accumulation doctrine.” The court’s decision makes clear that the doctrine, which says that business operators are not liable for injuries resulting from natural accumulations of water, ice, or snow that are tracked inside the premises from the outside, is not all-inclusive. Although it provides some protection for entities such as school districts for slip and fall claims, such entities will not automatically be protected by the doctrine just because it is wet or raining outside.
In Schemonia v. Sandoval School District 504 (5th Dist. Feb. 2014), a parent fell down the bleachers inside a school gym during his daughter’s basketball game, suffering injuries to his back and elbow. A trial court found in favor of the school district on summary judgment based on the “natural accumulation doctrine.” The appellate court reversed. The court found that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the school took sufficient actions to prevent and warn against slippery floors, despite the snowy conditions outside. For instance, the court noted that since the janitors mopped the floor throughout the day while it was snowing outside, a trier of fact could infer that the school district aggravated the natural accumulation of water on the bleachers that caused Schemonia’s fall. Similarly, although the school district said it put up “wet floor” signs, Schemonia disputed that fact.
This case does not alter the natural accumulation doctrine. However it is a caution to property owners, including public schools that they must still take reasonable steps to prevent and warn about slippery floors, even if the wetness is initially caused by people tracking in water and snow from outside.
* Jamel Greer is a third-year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.