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Day v. Wilcox Landscaping, Inc.

Supreme Court of Delaware

May 2, 2018

MARLENA L. DAY, Plaintiff Below, Appellant,
v.
WILCOX LANDSCAPING, INC., CARROW CONSTRUCTION, LLC and SLEEPY HOLLOW LAWN CARE & LANDSCAPING, INC., Defendants Below, Appellees.

          Submitted: February 7, 2018

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware C A No. N15C-06-277

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, VAUGHN, SEITZ and TRAYNOR Justices.

          ORDER

          JAMES T. VAUGHN, JR. JUSTICE.

         On this 2nd day of May 2018, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) The Appellant, Marlena Day, was injured when she slipped and fell during a snow storm. She brought suit against the Appellees, claiming that her injuries were proximately caused by negligence on their part. The Superior Court granted summary judgment for Appellees, ruling that the continuing storm doctrine was a defense to the Appellant's claims of negligence. Ms. Day appeals that ruling.

         (2) On January 21, 2014, a winter storm hit Newark, Delaware. According to weather records, snow was falling almost continuously from approximately 9:18 a.m through the early morning hours on January 22. In total, about eleven inches of snow fell. No snow or ice was present in the Newark area before the January 21 storm.

         (3) Day was a Sallie Mae employee working at the company's Newark office building. On January 21 she arrived to work around 8:00 a.m. before the snow began. Sometime around noon she decided to leave work and drive home before the weather and road conditions worsened. When she walked outside to leave it was snowing. She recalled the parking lot "looked like a sheet of ice." As she stepped off the sidewalk and into the parking lot she slipped and fell, injuring her right knee.

         (4) Sallie Mae contracted with Appellee Wilcox Landscaping, Inc., to perform snow and ice removal at Sallie Mae's Newark office building. Under their agreement, Wilcox was to remove snow "from roadways and parking areas [by] plowing, clearing, and salting of these areas to allow tenants to exit from the property." In turn, Wilcox sub-contracted with Appellees Carrow Construction, LLC, and Sleepy Hollow Lawn Care & Landscaping, Inc., to provide snow and ice removal as Wilcox directed.

         (5) Day filed suit against Wilcox, and later amended her complaint to include Carrow and Sleepy Hollow, alleging negligence for their failure to: maintain the premises in a safe condition; inspect the premises for dangerous conditions; warn others of dangerous conditions that existed; and act with reasonable care in clearing the parking lot of snow and ice. Appellees filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that under the continuing storm doctrine their actions were reasonable during the on-going snow storm. The Superior Court granted the motions, finding that the continuing storm doctrine applied. This appeal followed.

         (6) "This Court reviews de novo the Superior Court's grant or denial of summary judgment 'to determine whether, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the moving party has demonstrated that there are no material issues of fact in dispute and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'"[1]

         (7) Generally, a landowner owes a duty to business invitees to keep his premises safe for their benefit.[2] This duty includes keeping the property reasonably safe from accumulations of ice and snow that occur naturally.[3] An exception to this general duty is known as the continuing storm doctrine. Under that doctrine, "in the absence of unusual circumstances, [a landowner] is permitted to await the end of the storm and a reasonable time thereafter to remove ice and snow from an outdoor entrance walk, platform, or steps."[4] The policy behind this exception is that changing weather conditions due to a storm make it "inexpedient and impracticable" for a landowner "to take earlier effective action" to clear their premises.[5]

         (8) Recently, we reaffirmed our approval of the continuing storm doctrine in Laine v. Speedway[6] In Laine, the plaintiff slipped on ice and fell near a gas pump on the premises of a combination convenience store-gas station. He had stopped at the store to fill up the gas tank in his employer's van. The ice was caused by a light, freezing rain which was then falling and continued throughout the day. The Superior Court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment based on the continuing storm doctrine.

         (9) On appeal, this Court "[held] to the view . . . that it is reasonable for a landowner to wait until a storm ends and a reasonable time thereafter before removing natural accumulations of ice and snow created by a storm, in the absence of unusual circumstances."[7] We noted "customers are expected to be aware themselves of the risks ...


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