The Illinois Supreme Court recently heard a case where two long-standing principles of Illinois law were at odds. The clashing principles were the “common carrier duty” and the “natural accumulation rule”. The “common carrier duty” mandates that entities providing public transportation are to exercise the highest degree of care in the operation of their trains, buses and other property where passengers would be found. The “natural accumulation rule” basically provides that property owners have no duty to remove a natural accumulation of snow or ice.
In Krywin v. Chicago Transit Authority[“CTA”], the plaintiff, Marianna Krywin, a 76 year old nurse, was injured while exiting her train onto a Chicago Transit Authority train platform. Ms. Krywin alleged that the platform was icy and wet, and the CTA had made no effort to clear it, causing her to fall and break her leg. She sued and the case went to trial. The plaintiff argued that the CTA, as a “common carrier” had a duty to exercise the highest degree of care in the operation of its stations and failed to do so. The CTA, in response, argue that it had no duty to remove the offending snow and ice, as it was a natural accumulation. Additionally, the CTA argued that the plaintiff had presented no evidence that the snow and ice was unnatural. The CTA moved for a directed finding at the close of evidence, saying it was entitled to prevail, citing the natural accumulation rule. The trial court granted the motion, ruling the CTA had no duty to remove any natural accumulation, nor any duty to warn of any such accumulation. At the same time however, the Court ruled that the CTA, as a common carrier, had a duty to provide a safe place for the plaintiff to enter or leave the train. The jury was instructed consistent with the judge’s rulig and returned a verdict for plaintiff in the amount of $372,141.
The CTA appealed. The Appellate Court reversed, ruling that the CTA did indeed owe its passengers the highest degree of care, but, the natural accumulation rule trumped the CTA’s obligation to provide a safe place to enter or exit a train.
Plaintiff then sought some relief from the Illinois Supreme Court – but found none. The Supreme Court ruled that the natural accumulation rule did not take a backseat to the special duty owed by common carriers to their passengers. The Court explained that the CTA did not have a blanket immunity for falls on its property created by icy conditions. Instead, the Court commented that whether the CTA met its special duty to passengers was a question of fact for the jury. Sadly though for Mrs. Krywin, the Court ruled that she had failed to prove the CTA had breached that duty.
The practical effect of the ruling, notwithstanding the Supreme Court discussion, appears to give special recognition to the natural accumulation rule – thereby making recovery in snow and ice cases, already very, very tough, even harder.