Snow Removal Contractor Benefits From Hills and Ridges Doctrine

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has upheld the protections of the “hills and ridges” doctrine as applied to a snow removal contractor.  In a recent opinion, dated August 28, 2019 in the case, James M. Hare, Jr. v. Mark Zaffino d/b/a Mark Zaffino Snow Removal, No. 1349 WDA 2018, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upheld a trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment in favor of the snow removal contractor.

The relevant facts of the case are as follows.  On the morning of January 5, 2015, an employee of Defendant, Mark Zaffino Snow Removal (“Zaffino”) performed snow removal services between 4:25am and 5:30am at the Cobham Park Tank Farm (“Tank Farm”) in Warren, Pennsylvania, after a substantial accumulation of snow and ice that occurred overnight.  Zaffino had entered into a contract with Tank Farm stating that Zaffino would complete all necessary snow removal services before 7:00am after an accumulation of three inches of snow.

Plaintiff, an employee of Tank Farm, arrived at the property at approximately 5:30am.  It was still snowing at the time and there was already approximately 5 ½ to 6 inches of snow on the ground.  Plaintiff fell on an unplowed area of the roadway and fractured his left leg.  Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit against Zaffino, who moved for summary judgment based on the protections of the “hills and ridges” doctrine.  The trial court granted Zaffino’s motion for summary judgment and Plaintiff’s appeal followed.

As long as an owner or occupier of land has not permitted snow and ice from accumulating unreasonably into ridges or elevations creating generally slippery conditions, the owner or occupier is protected from liability under the “hills and ridges” doctrine.  A plaintiff is required to prove the following to overcome the “hills and ridges” doctrine: 1) that snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians travelling thereon; 2) that the property owner had notice, either actual or constructive, of the existence of such condition; 3) that it was the dangerous condition, accumulation of snow and ice, which caused the plaintiff to fall.  Generally, a landowner or occupier has a reasonable time to remove snow and ice after notice of the dangerous condition.

In this case, Hare argued that the “hills and ridges” doctrine did not apply to a snow removal contractor.  However, Superior Court disagreed with this theory.  The Superior Court held that it is well established that an independent contractor becomes a possessor of the necessary area of land in order to complete the work that is contemplated under a contract.  Furthermore, the Superior Court held that precedent specifically states that the “hills and ridges” doctrine applies to an independent contractor.  As such, the Superior Court upheld the trial court’s decision regarding the applicability of the “hills and ridges” doctrine to a snow removal company.  The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Zaffino was not liable for Plaintiff’s injuries, because it was still snowing at the time of the fall.  The snow had not accumulated to “hills and ridges” to put Zaffino on notice that it had become a dangerous condition.

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