“Continuing Storm Doctrine” Means That Business Owner Owed No Duty to Clear Icy Sidewalks

February 18, 2014 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Rochford v. G.K. Dev., Inc., No. 3-1117 / 13-0691, 2014 Iowa App. LEXIS 117 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 5, 2014)

The Iowa Court of Appeals has affirmed that a mall owner owed no duty to its customers to remove snow and ice from sidewalks where a “continuing storm” did not provide the owner with a “reasonable opportunity” to remedy the condition.

The case arose after the customer of a shopping mall sustained injuries after falling on an icy sidewalk while leaving the mall. She filed an action against the owner of the mall, alleging that it negligently failed to remove the ice. The district court granted summary judgment to the mall owner, finding that weather conditions due to an ongoing storm made it “inexpedient and impractical” for the owner to clear the walkway.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed. The customer had presented weather data showing that freezing rain had begun to fall while she and her husband were in the mall. At the time she left around 4:00 p.m., the temperature hovered around 30 degrees and the winds were blowing from 20 to 25 miles per hour. The freezing mist continued throughout that evening until 10:30 p.m. The customer argued that because the mall owner had spread pellets on a portion of the sidewalk to clear the ice, it would have been possible to de-ice all of the walkways.

The court looked to Iowa Supreme Court precedent to find that the business owner would owe no duty to the customer to remove the ice if the owner would not have had a reasonable opportunity to remedy the condition due to a “continuing storm.” See Reuter v. Iowa Trust & Savings Bank, 57 N.W.2d 225, 227 (Iowa 1953); Hovden v. City of Decorah, 155 N.W.2d 534 (Iowa 1968),superseded by statute,1984 Iowa Acts ch. 1002, §1,as recognized in Hopping v. College Block Partners, 599 N.W.2d 703, 705 n.1 (Iowa 1999). The customer argued that the weather conditions did not constitute a “storm” sufficient to trigger the doctrine. Because no Iowa court had decided that specific issue, the court looked to decisions from other jurisdictions where courts had found that the continuing storm doctrine was not limited to situations involving “blizzard” or “raging” conditions. See Glover v. Botsford, 971 N.Y.S.2d 771, 772 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013); Amos.v. NationsBank, N.A., 504 S.E.2d 365, 367–68 (Va. 1998).

The court ruled that in the case at hand, the freezing rain caused the sidewalks to ice over, leading to the customer’s fall. Because the freezing rain had not stopped before the fall, the owner was not yet under a duty to take steps to remove the ice. Whatever this "weather event" was called, held the court, it was of sufficient significance to qualify for the application of the “continuing storm doctrine.”

Although the continuing storm doctrine is favorable to property owners, it does not relieve them of responsibility to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of their premises for the protection of lawful visitors. When possible, property owners should always take reasonable steps to clear snow and ice from walkways. Indeed, in Iowa, property owners not only have a common law duty to keep their sidewalks clear of ice and snow, they also have a statutory duty to maintain the sidewalks adjacent to their property under Iowa Code §364.12(b).