Iowa Supreme Court Reviews “Continuing Storm Doctrine” in Personal Injury Cases
Iowa property owners have a legal responsibility to keep their premises reasonably free of hazards that might injure invited guests. For example, a store owner must exercise “reasonable care” to clear its parking lot of snow and ice following a winter storm. But what about during the storm? Can the owner be held liable if it waits until after the snow has stopped to actually do something?
The short answer, at least in Iowa, is yes. Since the 1950s, Iowa courts have followed the “continuing storm doctrine.” As the Iowa Supreme Court explained in a recent decision, Gries v. Ames Ecumenical Housing, Inc., the doctrine “reflects a widespread policy consensus that land possessors should not be forced to undertake snow or ice removal in the midst of a storm.” So if a third party is injured on the premises in the midst of a storm, the owner is not legally liable.
Court: Continuing Storm Rule Is Not “Continuing Mist” Rule
The Ames case actually presented the Supreme Court with a direct challenge to the ongoing relevance of the continuing storm doctrine. The underlying personal injury lawsuit involved a 63-year-old woman (the plaintiff) who slipped and fell in front of her apartment building. She subsequently sued her landlord for damages. A Story County judge later granted summary judgment to the landlord, citing the continuing storm doctrine.
The Supreme Court declined the plaintiff’s request to abandon the doctrine. It held the rule continues to provide valuable public policy benefits. Notably, it encourages stores to stay open during a storm without exposing themselves to additional risks of personal injury claims.
That said, the Court also held the doctrine may not apply to the facts of this particular plaintiff’s lawsuit. Before the trial court, both sides disputed the actual weather conditions at the time of the plaintiff’s slip and fall. Weather reports indicated there was “some light snow” earlier in the day and between .21 and .32 inches of “precipitation” that evening. This precipitation was sufficient to create icing conditions, but witnesses offered conflicting accounts as to whether there was any “active precipitation” when the plaintiff fell.
In any event, the Supreme Court quipped that the continuing storm doctrine is not “the continuing mist doctrine.” The trial court seemed to think any precipitation relieved a property owner of a duty to take immediate action. The Supreme Court disagreed. It said the rule only applies when there is a “meaningful, ongoing accumulation of snow or ice.” The Supreme Court therefore returned the plaintiff’s lawsuit to the lower court for trial. The justices said a jury could properly sort out what the actual weather conditions were that night and whether the continuing storm doctrine properly applied.
Speak with a Southeast Iowa Personal Injury Lawyer Today
Even a seemingly simple slip-and-fall accident may raise complicated legal questions. An experienced Southeast Iowa personal injury attorney can advise you on the best way to handle these situations and help you seek any compensation you may be entitled to from a negligent property owner. Contact the Noyes Law Office today to schedule a consultation with a member of our personal injury team.