Question: When is the lease provision making the tenant responsible for snow and ice removal not controlling in a slip-n-fall case?

This question was from a potential client and after adding a Q&A to our website I decided it is a good question to expand on in a blog. Of course, if I lived in a warmer climate it would not be relevant from ice and snow, but up north it’s entirely relevant for landlords as well as tenants. In the area of commercial real estate we run into this often enough that I get questions from both parties. I own commercial real estate and have rented so I know it firsthand from both sides.

Snow and ice are predictable risks during the colder months. We know it will happen we just don’t know when and how much. So snow and ice along with slick sidewalks are foreseeable to both landlords and tenants. Entering into a lease is a time to decide who will be responsible for clearing snow and making ice less slippery. (Of course I’m referring to snowmelt, ice melt or sand.) At the time the lease is being negotiated the landlord will usually put forth their idea of who is going to be responsible. If the tenant, then it will be in the lease unless of course it’s a single family home and then normally that falls on the shoulders of the tenant. But what if the lease makes the tenant responsible for snow removal but the accumulation has more to do with a maintenance issue? Then what? Well, that’s why this question was posted. So let us read and understand that the landlord is not free to ignore maintenance issues when the lease makes the tenant responsible for snow and ice removal.

Question: Could I have a case against my landlord despite the (lease) addendum because of the poor condition of the steps?

Question Detail: I am a college student renting a house from a landlord. Yesterday morning, I was leaving for class as I always do and I slipped and fell on our steps, which were extremely icy. I am having excruciating back and neck pains. I am going to a doctor tomorrow to document this and see what is wrong exactly. I have been looking at our lease and there is an addendum that states that tenants are responsible for ice and snow removal; however, our steps are made from wood and are in extremely poor condition. I know that the landlord is responsible for maintaining these steps. In the Rights and Duties of Tenants booklet, it states, "Stairs, porches and all other attached features must be kept in sound condition," but they are surely not in sound condition to begin with, despite the fall.

Answer: The answer is maybe. If the poor condition of the steps caused the ice to accumulate in an unnatural manner, then the argument is one based on maintenance of the physical structure and not the removal of snow and ice. If not, then the answer is no; that the addendum to the lease prevails.

So let’s develop the idea from each point of view.

Landlords want this provision in the lease to make tenants responsible for clearing off the snow and ice and for insuring against personal injury claims. It’s a legitimate practice and one used most frequently in single-family homes or smaller multi-family buildings such as duplexes. No one can make a profit if all they do is run over to wipe the tenant’s nose whenever it runs.

From the tenants point of view they don’t like doing it unless they are getting a rent reduction. After all they are renters not owners who are making any headway on equity.

But each side must take responsibility for protecting themselves and the landlord has the obligation according to Iowa Code chapter 562A to provide a safe place to live. That doesn’t mean the landlord owes anything more than what the situation warrants.

Proving Your Case

Stop! Don’t call the lawyer just yet. First get out that camera phone and start shooting photographs of the structural problem as you see it. Photograph the snow and ice accumulation in place! Coming to the lawyers office in May complaining about snow and ice you haven’t photographed is a waste of time; because no lawyer can prove your case without the right evidence. And in this instance a picture is worth 10,000 words. 

On another day I'll talk about how the landlord can protect themselves from being sued over this type of maintenance defect.  Until then if you have a question let me know by sending it to my email address. Good luck with your real estate investment!

Steve Lombardi
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Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
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