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Naturally Accumulating Elements are not Unreasonably Dangerous Conditions

By: Amy Agnew

Around this time of year, we can always appreciate crazy Texas weather.  Sunshine and 80 degrees one day and the next day it is either a torrential downpour or snow.  But, what happens when the Texas weather creates a dangerous condition on a premises?

Texas courts have concluded that naturally occurring elements, such as rain, ice and mud, do not create unreasonable risks of harm.  The key is that such natural elements must accumulate without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact. See Scott & White Memorial Hospital v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 413-414 (Tex. 2010).  A “natural accumulation of ice is one that accumulates as a result of an act of nature, and an unnatural accumulation refers to causes and factors other than inclement weather conditions – to causes other than the meteorological forces of nature”.  Callahan v. Vitesse Aviation Services, LLC, 397 S.W.3d 342, 352 (Tex. 2013)

Also, the Texas Supreme Court has held that dirt in its natural state, even if slippery when wet or containing small rocks, does not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. Brownsville Navigation Dist. v. Izaguirre, 829 S.W.2d 159, 160-161(Tex. 1992).  Even, “plain dirt which ordinarily becomes soft and muddy when wet is not a dangerous condition of property for which a landlord may be liable”.  Id.   Also, “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 and, therefore, is not a condition posing an unreasonable risk of harm”. M .O. Dental Lab v. Rape, 139 S.W3d 671, 676 (Tex. 2004).  Further, holding a landowner accountable for naturally accumulated mud would impose a heavy burden on the landowner because rain, a cause of mud, is beyond the landowner’s control.  Id.

Also, a wet surface due to rain, like a slippery road condition, is a natural, accumulating occurrence and is not an unreasonably dangerous condition.  See Tex. Dep’t of Transp. v. Martinez, --S.W.3d --, 2006 WL 1406571 *5-6 (Tex.App.—San Antonio, pet. denied).

However, the Texas Supreme Court did outline two exceptions to the natural accumulation rule in Scott & White Memorial Hospital v. Fair.  First, a premises owner should be liable to when it has actual or implied notice that a natural accumulation of ice or snow on the premises created a condition substantially more dangerous than an invitee should have anticipated by reason of knowledge of the conditions generally prevailing in the area.  However, this exception applies only in situations where either the ice or snow conceals a defect or hazard that an invitee should not anticipate from ‘his general knowledge of wintery conditions in the area’.  Scott & White Memorial Hospital v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 416.  For example, this exception arises “when accumulated snow or ice covers a normally open and obvious danger, such as a deep hole in a parking lot or an eight-inch raised concrete bunker.”  However, when the ‘complained –of condition’ is the slipperiness of the ice itself, then that condition does not rise to the level of becoming unreasonably dangerous as it is one that is normally associated with ice.  Id. at 416-417.  The second exception to the rule is that the natural accumulation rule does not apply when a premises owner is actively negligent in permitting or creating an unnatural accumulation of ice or snow.  Id.