You Be the Judge: On Thin Ice

A shopper is injured after slipping on frozen ice. Is the snowplowing company at fault?

A salted sidewalk

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On the morning of February 22, 1996, Robyn Derbabian arrived at Mariner’s Pointe Shopping Center. As she was walking toward the Kroger store, she slipped and fell on an inconspicuous patch of ice — the size of two parking spaces — injuring her left ankle. Although there was no rain or snow on the day Robyn fell, it had rained for a few hours the day before, followed by freezing temperatures overnight. A week before the accident, there had been significant snowfall, and the parking lot had been plowed and tons of salt applied.

Robyn filed suit against Mariner’s Pointe Associates (MP) — owner of the shopping center — and their contractor, S&C Snowplowing, Inc. (SC) under premises liability, a legal concept that holds negligent property owners accountable for accidents and injuries that occur on their premises. Robyn alleged that both parties were negligent in the maintenance of the parking lot and failed to inspect the premises for dangerous conditions.

Mariner’s Pointe claimed that their contractor S&C Snowplowing was responsible for snow and ice removal. SC disagreed and asked the court to dismiss the case because it had no possession or control of the parking lot at the time Robyn fell and had no knowledge of the ice patch that caused her fall.

The trial court refused to dismiss the case against SC or MP. Soon after the ruling, MP decided to settle out of court with Robyn, and SC and Robyn proceeded to trial.

At trial, SC maintained that it had not been negligent in the performance of its contractual duties. The contract between MP and SC specified that, in exchange for a flat fee, SC would remove snow and ice from the “parking areas, entrances, receiving areas, etc.,” and on “city and tenant sidewalks.” The contract also specified that the defendant would salt the parking areas for an extra charge of $90 per ton of salt, which was to be applied “by Contractor discretion,” as well as that all work would “be completed in a professional manner according to standard practices.”

SC also reiterated that it did not have possession or control of the parking lot when Robyn fell and therefore could not be held responsible for property liability claims.

Robyn argued that SC was negligent because it failed to make reasonable inspections of the parking lot after the rain and freezing conditions, and therefore failed to exercise reasonable care in the performance of its contractual duties, and that because SC entered into a contract with MP to remove snow and ice to ensure the premises were safe, SC assumed the duty of the premises’ owner. Finally, Robyn argued that SC should have known there would be ice in the parking lot the morning after rain and freezing temperatures.

How Would You Rule?

The jury agreed with Robyn and found SC 90 percent negligent and Robyn 10 percent negligent, awarding Robyn $45,000 for past and present damages, as well as $1,000 annually from 1999 to 2030 for future damages.

SC appealed the trial court decision to the Court of Appeals of Michigan, arguing that the case should have been dismissed.

In a split decision, the appeals court ruled that the case should have been dismissed because Robyn was unable to establish a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether SC (1) was in possession and control of the parking lot; (2) had knowledge of the icy condition of the parking lot; and (3) was unreasonable in its failure to salt the parking lot given the weather conditions. As a result, Robyn did not receive the $45,000-plus award for damages.

Derbabian v. S&C Snowplowing, Inc. (2002)

This article is featured in the January/February 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. Mike, you bring up a lot of good questions in your comments, but so did Bob regarding all of the unknowns. You think you agree with the appeals court decision, but aren’t fully sure which is understandable. This is not an easy case, but Bob is right with his disagreement on their decision. It was serious enough that the jury awarded Robyn the above amounts. The court of appeals took everything away, down to the last dollar. I agree with him something very dishonest occurred with this court. Not an attorney, but you don’t need to be one to see that.

  2. I think I’d agree with the appeals court, but there are too many unknowns to make a definitive answer.
    More details about the contract between S & C and Mariner’s would be a start.
    Just because a parking lot LOOKS safe for walking after a freeze and snow, doesn’t mean it is.
    Was this the first time Robyn ever experienced cold/freezing weather and snow?
    And were any signs posted to let people know that there was weather occurring over that lot?

  3. There are a lot of unknowns in this case as presented, including Robyn’s medical costs at the time of the accident, beyond, and for how long. What about her ability to work, earn a living and more? I agree with the jury’s initial award of the $45k, $71k for future damages.

    With medical costs being what they’ve been for so long, an award of this amount 20 years ago seems reasonable and frankly rather light. Surely S&C would have to had been insured for such a case if/when it were to happen. I do not agree with court of appeals decision, and suspect some kind of underhanded collusion occurred here.

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