Indiana Court of Appeals Finds Homeowner Owed Guest No Common Law or Statutory Duty to Clear Snow and Ice from Sidewalk in Front of Home

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a homeowner in a claim against the homeowner arising from a guest’s fall on an icy sidewalk adjacent to the homeowner’s property. In Stanley v. Burns, Andrea Burns (Burns) worked for a direct sales company and invited numerous women on her team, including Erin Harrell Stanley (“Stanley”), to her home to watch a planned YouTube live corporate broadcast. On the night of the broadcast in December 2019, the weather had been “frosty,” but it had not snowed. Burns did not check the driveway or sidewalk at her home to see whether they were safe for her guests. Stanley arrived at Burns’ home around 7:20 P.M. and at that time it was dark outside. Since Burns’ driveway was full, Stanley parked on the street. Stanley got out of her vehicle and walked “three or four steps” on the road-side sidewalk towards Burns’ driveway and slipped and fell on ice, injuring her left leg. Stanley filed a premise liability lawsuit against Burns and her husband.

To prevail in a negligence claim, a plaintiff must show (1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) breach of that duty, and (3) damages proximately caused by the breach of duty. Absent a duty, there can be no negligence. Burns moved for summary judgment in the trial court, designating as evidence Stanley’s deposition and a plat of survey of Burns’ property to show that the road-side sidewalk in front of Burns’ house was outside Burns’ property. Burns argued she was entitled to summary judgment because she had no common law duty to clear the public sidewalk where Stanley fell and the local ordinance that required her to clear the public sidewalk did not create a private right of action that Stanley could enforce against her. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Burns, and Stanley appealed that decision.

On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals first addressed Stanley’s argument that Burns had a common law duty to clear the sidewalk because Burns “controlled the premises.” Under Section 343 of the Second Restatement of Torts, which Indiana had adopted, a possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm to invitees caused by a condition on the land when the possessor (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, (b) should expect that such invitees will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect such invitees against the danger. However, the Court of Appeals noted that Section 343 of the Second Restatement of Torts does not define the scope of “the land” or what it means to be a “possessor of land,” there was no genuine issue of material fact that Stanley fell on the road-side public sidewalk that abutted, but was outside of, Burns’ property, and under well-established Indiana law, an owner or occupant of property abutting a public street or sidewalk has no duty to clear such streets or sidewalks of snow or ice. Accordingly, the Court found Burns did not owe any common law duty to Stanley to clear the sidewalk of ice.

The Court next addressed Stanley’s argument that Burns owed her a statutory duty to clear the sidewalk based upon a local town ordinance. The ordinance stated that every owner, lessee and/or occupant owning, leasing and/or occupying any premises abutting any concrete sidewalk shall remove snow and ice from such sidewalk each day before 6:00 P.M. However, the ordinance also stated that the town shall cause snow and ice to be removed each day after 6:00 P.M., with the cost of such removal to be assessed to the owner of the premises abutting the sidewalk.

Under Indiana law, a violation of a statute or ordinance will give rise to civil liability if the drafters of the law intended to create a “private right of action,” that is, a duty enforceable by tort law. Courts first look to see whether the law contains an express right of action. If there is no express right of action, courts ask (1) whether the law was designed to protect particular individuals or the public in general and (2) whether the law includes an independent enforcement mechanism.

Here, the Court of Appeals noted the ordinance did not contain an express right of action, Indiana courts have consistently found similar ordinances were not enacted for the protection of individuals using streets but rather for the benefit of the municipalities, and the ordinance already contained an enforcement mechanism (the town recouping the cost of snow and ice removal from premise owners). As such, the Court found the ordinance did not create a private right of action that Stanley could enforce against Burns. Having found Burns did not owe Stanley either a common law duty or statutory duty, the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Burns.

You can read the full opinion here.

Contact Information