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Premises Liability in Pennsylvania

Generally, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, every property owner (or those occupying or in control of property) has a duty to keep its adjacent sidewalks and lots in a safe condition for travel by the public.  In fact, walkways “must be so maintained that they will not present an unreasonable risk of harm to pedestrians.”  Peair v. Home Ass’n of Enola Legion No. 751, 430 A.2d 665, 667 (Pa. Super. 1981).  Whether a condition presents an unreasonable risk of harm to pedestrians varies with the circumstances of each case.  Id.

In order to assert a claim for negligence against the landowner/occupier of land, the plaintiff must prove that (a) the defendant owed her a duty; (b) the defendant breached the duty; (c) he/she sustained damages; and (d) there is a causal connection between the breach and the resulting damages. Paliometros v. Loyola, 932 A.2d 128, 137 (Pa. Super. 2007).

Duty of Care Owed to Persons While on the Land

The standard of care a possessor of land owes to one who enters upon the land depends upon whether the person entering is a trespasser, licensee, or invitee. A public invitee is a person who is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public.  A licensee is a social guest at the property and a trespasser is one who enters the property uninvited.

Possessors of land owe a duty to protect invitees from foreseeable harm. With respect to conditions on the land which are known to or discoverable by the possessor, the possessor is subject to liability only if he: (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitee; (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and; (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.  See Carrender v. Fitter, 469 A.2d 120 (Pa. 1983).

Duty to an Invitee

A possessor of land is not liable to his invitees for physical harm caused to them by any activity or condition on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them, unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness. The law of Pennsylvania does not impose liability if it is reasonable for the possessor to believe that the dangerous condition would be obvious to and discovered by his invitee. A danger is deemed to be “obvious” when both the condition and the risk are apparent to and would be recognized by a reasonable man, in the position of the visitor, exercising normal perception, intelligence, and judgment. For a danger to be “known,” it must not only be known to exist, but also be recognized that it is dangerous and the probability and gravity of the threatened harm must be appreciated.

Although the question of whether a danger is known or obvious is usually a question of fact for the jury, the question may be decided by the court where reasonable minds cannot differ as to the conclusion. When an invitee enters business premises, discovers dangerous conditions which are both obvious and avoidable, and nevertheless proceeds voluntarily to encounter them, the doctrine of assumption of risk operates merely as a counterpart to the possessor’s lack of duty to protect the invitee from those risks. By voluntarily proceeding to encounter a known or obvious danger, the invitee is deemed to agree to accept the risk and to look out for himself. It is precisely because the invitee assumes the risk of injury from obvious and avoidable dangers that the possessor owes the invitee no duty to take measures to alleviate those dangers. Thus, to say that the invitee assumes the risk of injury from a known and avoidable danger is simply another way of expressing the lack of any duty on the part of the possessor to protect the invitee against such dangers.

Snow and Ice on Walkways and Lots

Under the well-settled law of Pennsylvania, an abutting property owner is primarily liable for the removal of ice and snow from the sidewalks and lots adjacent to the subject premises.  Rinaldi v. Levine, 176 A.2d 623, 625-26 (Pa.1962) (emphasis added).  Yet, courts have held that there is no absolute duty on the part of a landowner to keep his premises and sidewalks free from snow and ice at all times.  Id. The logic behind this notion is that these accumulations are natural phenomena incidental to the region’s climate. See Goodman v. Corn Exchange National Bank & Trust Co. et al., 200 A. 642 (Pa. 1938). The only requirement of landowners is that they act within a reasonable time after notice to remove accumulations of ice and snow when it is in a dangerous condition.

The hills and ridges doctrine protects an owner or occupier of land from liability for generally slippery conditions resulting from ice and snow where the owner / occupier has not permitted the ice and snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations.  Id; see also Harvey v. Rouse Chamberlin, Ltd., 901 A.2d 523 (Pa. Super. 2006) and Harmotta v. Bender, 601 A.2d 837, 841 (Pa. Super.1992). If applicable, the doctrine mandates that a plaintiff seeking to recover against the landowner or occupier prove that (1) snow and ice has accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to those traveling thereon; (2) the property owner had actual or constructive notice of the existence of this condition; and (3) the dangerous accumulation of ice and snow caused plaintiff’s fall. Rinaldi, supra at 625.  

Parking lots and garages are treated the same as a sidewalk for the purpose of snow removal as they are considered walkways that business invitees are expected to traverse in order to enter the business. Touchette v. Weis Mkts., 23 Pa. D. & C.5th 321 (Pa. County Ct. 2011).  As a general rule, a landlord out of possession is not liable for injuries incurred by third parties on the leased premises because the landlord has no duty to such persons.  Jones v. Levin, 940 A.2d 451, 454 (Pa. Super. 2007).