The “Fall” Season — Liability For Fallen Leaves That Create A Dangerous Property Condition

Ah, Fall.  In a few weeks it’ll be here.  Cool dry weather and radiant leaves.  Leaves that fall to the ground and temporarily create a colorful sea to wade through.  Leaves that’ll pile up and cover uneven sidewalks.  Leaves that’ll quickly becomes brown and turn slippery when it rains, making stairs and walkways treacherous.

Everyone knows that you can be sued for injuries or wrongful death caused by ice or snow on your property, even when the ice or snow has occurred naturally.  So what stops someone from suing after they slip or trip on your leaf-covered sidewalk or stairs?  The answer?  Absolutely nothing.

You might laugh at first, but think about it for a moment.  Leaves, like any other condition on your property (natural or unnatural), can constitute a dangerous condition that exposes you to liability if someone gets hurt.  In the eyes of the law, there’s no distinction between leaves and snow, ice, a snarling dog, a rotted stairway handrail, a rotting plank on a deck, or water spraying from a hose.  People who have been injured by such conditions have successfully sued, and there’s no reason to think that Iowa’s courts would treat leaves any differently.  And leaves, at least on sidewalks and other paved public rights-of-way, probably fall within most municipalities’ laws for clearing such areas, same as snow accumulations.

Granted, “leaf” claims are rare and usually fail.  Just like with snow and ice cases, the conclusion of many judges and juries is that leaves are an obvious danger that people confront at their own risk.  If the risk cannot be avoided (say the leaf-covered stairs are the only way out of the building), courts often require people to proceed with care for their own safety.

But people in Iowa occasionally do successfully sue for injuries incurred after tripping and falling on a sidewalk.  For example, a few years ago the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld a large jury verdict for a woman who tripped over uneven sidewalk and was seriously injured in the resulting fall.  The adjoining property owner was blamed for not leveling the sidewalk or marking the raised area.  The key point is that the concrete was bare and the raised area was an inch or so higher than portion the woman had just crossed.  In other words, it was plain as day that the sidewalk had a significant raised area.  Can you imagine how much easier it would’ve been to win that case had the sidewalk been covered in leaves, thus hiding the raised area?

Another area to be careful about is unlit or poorly lit leaf-covered stairs, especially if the leaves are wet and slippery.  Wet leaves can be as slippery as ice.  It will be harder to defend the case if someone slips on wet leaves that can’t readily be seen.

In summary, be careful to keep your sidewalk, stairs, and walkways clear of leaves.  And if you happen to be hurt because of a condition caused by fallen leaves, please call me and I’ll be happy to see if I can help out.

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