Rarity of icy weather in Texas frees premises owners from liability, high court rules

By Steve Korris | May 11, 2010


AUSTIN – Ice equals mud, the Supreme Court of Texas declared on May 7, and those who fall on either can't blame anyone but themselves.

"Both conditions pose the same risk of harm, and ice, like mud, results from precipitation beyond a premises owner's control," Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote.

The justices reversed Third District appeals judges in Austin and shut down a suit against Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple.

Gary Fair and Linda Fair filed the suit in Bell County, claiming Gary suffered injuries in a fall on pavement between the entrance and the parking lot.

They argued that application of Meltz, a de-icer, made the ice more slippery.

They pleaded that Texas courts should treat ice differently from mud because ice rarely occurs in Texas.

Bell County District Judge Rick Morris granted summary judgment to the hospital.

Third District judges reinstated the suit, finding Scott and White Memorial failed to establish that the ice accumulation was in its natural state.

They held that the hospital created an unreasonable risk of harm.

But at the Supreme Court, all nine justices disagreed.

Jefferson quoted a decision from 2004 that, "Ordinary mud that accumulates naturally on an outdoor concrete slab without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact is, in normal circumstances, nothing more than dirt in its natural state."

He wrote that holding a landowner accountable for naturally accumulated mud would impose a heavy burden because rain is beyond a premises owner's control.

Accidents on mud are likely regardless of precautions and that invitees are better positioned than owners to avoid danger, he wrote.

Jefferson wrote that the rarity of ice in Texas weighed in the hospital's favor.

"Requiring premises owners to guard against wintry conditions would inflict a heavy burden because of the limited resources landowners likely have on hand to combat occasional ice accumulation," he wrote.

Even if Meltz caused the ice to melt and refreeze, the Fairs still couldn't impose liability, the opinion states.

Jefferson wrote that "salting, shoveling, or applying de-icer to a natural ice accumulation does not transform it into an unnatural one."

"To find otherwise would punish business owners who, as a courtesy to invitees, attempt to make their premises safe," Jefferson wrote.

Bruce Burleson and Stuart Smith represented Scott and White Memorial.

Frederick Bostwick, Richard Brophy and Julie Jurgensen represented the Fairs.

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