Liability over ice falling in residential area?
February 10, 2007 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Some ice fell from the top of our neighbor's roof, and struck my mother-in-law in the head. Are they at all liable?

It wasn't an icicle, it was from the roof itself. A sheet of ice has formed on everyone's roofs here in the past weeks, and it was happenstance that she was where that one chunk fell. Regardless, she will need stitches. It doesn't feel like it's anyone's fault, but I feel I should at least tell the neighbors. Should I be more incensed?
posted by wysard to Law & Government (17 answers total)
Could your neighbors have done anything to prevent the incident? I'm guessing probably not, since ice is on everyone's roof.

Still, they should know about it so they can keep an eye on it and warn others.

Sorry about your Mominlaw.
posted by Aquaman at 9:02 AM on February 10, 2007

Have you been clearing your own roof off this week in case your neighbor walks by and is hit in the head by falling ice? If yes, definitely mention the incident with great irritation to your neighbors. If not, mention it so they know and leave it be.
posted by meerkatty at 9:06 AM on February 10, 2007

I think it would be rediculous to sue them, although stranger lawsuits have happened. I would definitely tell them it happened. It's one of those 'act of god' things... they couldn't have stopped it from hitting her, nor could they have prevented ice from forming on their roof.
posted by SpecialK at 9:06 AM on February 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, tell them what happened. If they are smart, they will contact their homeowner's carrier.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:08 AM on February 10, 2007

You'll have to check your local laws to see if the home owner is responsible.

But for good god, don't sue. Our courts are already over burdened with petty nonsense like this.

What ever happened to just talking to people? Mention the incident to your neighbor - maybe they will offer to pay the medical expenses, perhaps they will work to clear their roof in the future so no one else is hurt, etc.

Not everything has to be about retribution... gezz...
posted by wfrgms at 9:43 AM on February 10, 2007

Response by poster: Absolutely no intention of suing; my wife was freaked, and wanted something to "be done". Turned out it was worth 3 stitches, and a sore head for my mom-in-law. No one in this area (Toronto, Canada, a fact I neglected to mention) clears the ice off their roofs, and frankly, it's on far too much a slant to safely navigate anyway. "Act of God" sounds perfectly reasonable, many thanks!
posted by wysard at 10:02 AM on February 10, 2007

IANAL: Depending on your state courts, yes, your neighbors may have some responsibility for accidents on their property or caused by their property. The most likely scenario is that your m-i-l's health insurance will try to recover costs from your neighbor's property insurance. I would let them know that it happened, and try to get some advice on how to deal with the ice, which is obviously dangerous. The Cooperative Extension Office, maybe?

I was hurt in a skiing accident. My health isurance tried hard to get me to pin responsibility on the x-c ski center, although I fully knew that conditions were icy.
posted by theora55 at 10:14 AM on February 10, 2007

It's a force majeure. If you're going to tell your neighbors about it do it in the context of good-neighborliness, e.g., 'Be Careful! There's ice on all these roofs (or rooves or roofses or whatever works up there)'. If by some happenstance their mother in law gets clobbered with ice from your roof, and they lawyer up, you have something to discuss at the arbitration ;-)
posted by nj_subgenius at 10:29 AM on February 10, 2007

Yes, this accident would be covered by your neighbor's homeowner's insurance.

Since you presumably don't have any medical bills (Canada), your claim would just be for the pain and inconvenience of the incident. I have no idea if you want to pursue this, but I believe you *could* do so if you wished.

Re: act of God: the primary point of homeowner's insurance is to COVER "acts of God", meaning problems caused by weather, gravity, and so on. So while it is in some sense a perfectly random thing which does not seem to be the "fault" of the neighbor, it is also in another sense exactly the sort of thing that homeowner's insurance is designed to cover. Indeed, if the neighbor had clobbered the mother-in-law with a piece of ice (a much less random act), homeowner's insurance would not have covered it.
posted by jellicle at 10:55 AM on February 10, 2007

Me, I'd be incensed for a few minutes, then snap out of it. It's an accident, it happens, it's not anyone's fault. But make sure to mention it to the neighbors so that they understand why your m-i-l looks at them warily and crosses the street instead of walking by their roof in the future. They will likely be horrified, inquire about any injury, and offer their apologies. Perhaps they will also bring over some baked goods. Graciously accepting their apologies and baked goods would be a perfect resolution, in my book.
posted by desuetude at 12:08 PM on February 10, 2007

A lot of insurance clauses have a "good neighbour" policy that results in a payment of $500 in cases like this. No liability is admitted. I'm not sure if that meets your needs, but it's a friendlier resolution.
posted by acoutu at 1:50 PM on February 10, 2007

Here's my question: what have YOU done to protect your neighbors from your roof ice?

If nothing, it'd be pretty unethical for you to sue.

(Note: I know you're just curious and aren't planning on suing -- I'm just bringing this up for arguments sake.)
posted by JPowers at 3:10 PM on February 10, 2007

It's not force majeure if your neighbor could have prevented it. If the danger was reasonably forseeable and preventable then the neighbor is probably liable. The bigger issue is whether it matters. Are you willing to sour your reletionship with the neigbor by suing?
posted by caddis at 3:18 PM on February 10, 2007

clearly not a lawyer, but i just wonder how this scenario differs from, for instance, when branches from a tree located on a neighbor's property fall in a storm and damage one's own house (i live in florida, this happens with alarming regularity every hurricane season). my impression was that any cost associated with the damage would be covered by the neighbor's home insurance, but only if branches from the tree extend onto one's own property. i'm assuming the neighboring roof doesn't hang over and across the property line.

now, because you're in canada, there weren't any associated medical costs with getting the stitches, were there? (i might be wrong about the canadian health system and/or your mother in law could have been visiting from another country uninsured). if that's the case, since there aren't any monetary damages to be settled and the ice did not, it seems, fall as the result of any gross negligence, i would echo the sentiment that the situation warrants a friendly "just so you know" to the neighbor, and nothing beyond that.

although who knows, if this had happened on the site of a business, the character of the situation would seem somewhat changed (not that it necessarily would be). then again, we'll sue anyone in this country if we can get away with it.
posted by wreckingball at 7:16 PM on February 10, 2007

I find it interesting that being aware of your surroundings and applying a bit of common sense has gone out the window in favour of blame and litigation. Everybody (well, here in Toronto) has ice on the roof. If you walk near the edge, you will get hit. If you're lucky, it's a couple of drops of water down your neck. If you're not, it's a chunk of ice! (Sorry, I do agree, that hurts). But blaming your neighbors for an accident of unfortunate timing is not right. If the situation were reversed, and your neighbor came to you with this story, asking you what you will do to cover his complaint... A bit more compassion and an understanding that we live in an unpredictable, uncontrolled world, as much as we would deceive ourselves otherwise, will make it a bit friendlier place to live.
posted by defcom1 at 7:22 AM on February 11, 2007

I find it interesting that being aware of your surroundings and applying a bit of common sense has gone out the window in favour of blame and litigation.

Apparently, this is not the case. wysard makes it pretty clear that he has no intention to sue, and that he does consider this to have just been bad luck. Most of the thread agrees with this, and confirms that if needed, yes, homeowners insurance does generally cover this sort of thing.
posted by desuetude at 1:34 PM on February 11, 2007

My personal view is that these matters can typically be handled without litigation. The owner of such a house could contact the homeowner's insurance and tell them about a potential claim. And, as properly noted above, these are the kinds of things that homeowner's insurance is designed to cover.

But let's assume that we wanted to litigate this. This would be an interesting hypothetical on a first year's tort exam. And as I am a torts geek who likes thinking about it, I will share with what my view would be towards such an exam question. My analysis would go something like this (although written with more structure, academic eloquence, and citation to authority than this quick response merits) if it were a question on a torts exam:

This is a premises liability case. Any owner or occupier of a premise has a duty to warn or make safe of any unreasonably dangerous condition on the premises that the owner is aware of, or, through a reasonable inspection, should have been aware of. We would need to know a bit more information in order to properly answer the question on the exam. To determine the level of duty owed by the owner to the injured party, one first has to define the status of the injured party.

At common law, the injured party is one of three possible statuses: (1) invitee; (2) licensee; or (3) trespasser. The duties owed to the invitee are the highest and include the duties owed to the other two. So if you breached your duty by the trespasser standard, you've breached your duty no matter the status.

A trespasser is one who enters property without any right, authority or permission to be there. A possessor of land owes a duty not to injure a trespasser willfully, wantonly, or by gross negligence. Basically, to prove this, you would have to show the possessor actual subjective knowledge of the particularized risk to others (i.e., "Look, that ice is about to come sliding off the roof!") and just didn't care enough to do anything about it. I doubt that is the case in this question. So if the lady in the question is a trespasser, she is probably screwed.

A licensee is one who enters property with permission, but does so for her own benefit. Social guests tend to fall in this category. A possessor of land owes a duty to licensee to warn or make safe any dangers of which the possessor has actual knowledge of and the licensee does not. Obviously the possessor knows that the Grand Canyon could be a danger, but the licensee knows that walking off the cliff is dangerous, too. So the possessor has no duty to warn the licensee of the danger. Here, the possessor probably has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition (not that a "sheet of ice" will fall off, but that "there is stuff on my roof because of the weather that may fall off"). The licensee has knowledge of the danger that there is stuff on the roof or can readily ascertain such a danger from their experience. So the possessor probably does not have a duty to warn or make safe such a danger.

An invitee is one who enters the premises in response to an express or implied invitation of the possessor and for the benefit of both parties. Business patrons, employees and tenants tend to fall into this category. A possessor owes a duty to invitees to warn or make safe any unreasonably dangerous condition of which the possessor had actual knowledge or of which the possessor should have known based on reasonable inspection. Based on the facts in the question, it would appear likely that the owner knew or should have known of the unreasonable danger of the condition that things may fall of his roof. Thus the possessor would have the duty to invitees to warn or make the condition safe.

Thus, the two keys to answering the question are (1) what is the status of the injured party; and (2) to what extent the owner had unique knowledge both of the condition and the danger that the condition posed.

That's how the analysis would break down under the tort law model here in the United States. There would be potential defenses that the possessor could assert (such as "unavoidable accident" and other inferential rebuttal defenses) that could be asserted, but they are too numerous to go into here (and I have gone on too long).

In short, the premises liability case isn't looking to peachy for the injured person based on my understanding of the facts---all the more reason to resolve this through homeowner's insurance. Ok. Enough geeking out and time to go home.
posted by dios at 4:16 PM on February 12, 2007

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