Appeal from the Circuit Court of Clinton County. No. 97-L-10
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Welch
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS
The Honorable John W. McGuire, Judge, presiding.
Plaintiffs, Kevin E. Kellermann and Kathleen A. Kellermann, appeal the circuit court of Clinton County's dismissal of counts IV and V of their second amended complaint filed against defendant, Car City Chevrolet-Nissan, Inc. (Car City). Counts IV and V of the complaint allege that due to defendant's negligence, plaintiffs sustained injuries when Kevin slipped and fell on snow which had accumulated on defendant's sales lot. The circuit court applied the natural-accumulation rule, finding that defendant was not liable for injuries incurred by plaintiffs when Kevin slipped and fell on snow which had naturally accumulated on defendant's lot. Plaintiffs now appeal the dismissal of counts IV and V of their amended complaint, arguing that the natural-accumulation rule should not apply. For the following reasons, we affirm the decision of the circuit court.
On January 18, 1997, Kevin Kellermann and his wife, Kathleen, were walking on the auto sales lot of Car City in Centralia, Illinois. The lot is outdoors and contains numerous automobiles and trucks that are placed on display to allow an inspection by potential customers. According to the complaint, snow accumulated on the lot, making the lot "slick, icy[,] and hazardous." Plaintiffs do not allege that the accumulation of snow was unnatural or that a dangerous condition was created by defendant. The complaint does not describe the size of the auto sales lot, the size of the display area on the auto sales lot, or whether Kevin was distracted by anything on the lot.
In their complaint, plaintiffs allege that defendant was negligent for (1) failing to maintain a safe car-sales lot, (2) failing to remove the accumulation of snow and ice, (3) failing to place salt or cinders on the snow and ice, (4) failing to barricade the area containing the slick snow and ice, (5) failing to prevent customers' access to the area containing the snow and ice, (6) failing to warn the customers of the snow and ice, and (7) displaying the vehicles on the snow and ice when defendant knew that potential customers would go upon the area to examine the vehicles.
On January 17, 1998, the circuit court conducted a hearing concerning plaintiffs' second amended complaint. Although plaintiffs apparently requested that the circuit court create an exception to the natural-accumulation rule, the circuit court stated, "Perhaps such an exception should and may some day be created by the higher courts[;] however[,] at this time it appears clear to this court that under the general rule stated in Timmons v. Turske, 103 Ill. App. 3d 36 (1981), a property owner is not liable for injuries resulting from an icy condition which is a natural one." Accordingly, the circuit court dismissed plaintiffs' second amended complaint with prejudice. We shall now review this decision by the circuit court and address plaintiffs' arguments on appeal.
We review de novo the circuit court's dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint for the failure to state a cause of action. See Kotarba v. Jamrozik, 283 Ill. App. 3d 595, 596 (1996). Under a de novo standard of review, we need not give deference to the circuit court's decision. See Von Meeteren v. Sell-Sold, Ltd., 274 Ill. App. 3d 993, 996 (1995).
In the instant case, plaintiffs allege that defendant was negligent in maintaining its sales lot. In a negligence action, one of the essential elements is the existence of a duty to exercise reasonable care. See Unger v. Eichleay Corp., 244 Ill. App. 3d 445, 449 (1993). The question of whether a duty is owed is a question of law. See Roberson v. J.C. Penney Co., 251 Ill. App. 3d 523, 526 (1993). If defendant does not owe a duty to plaintiffs to exercise reasonable care, then no cause of action for negligence will exist. See Sparacino v. Andover Controls Corp., 227 Ill. App. 3d 980, 986 (1992).
It is the general rule in Illinois that a landowner or a possessor of land has a duty to an invitee or a licensee to exercise ordinary or reasonable care in maintaining his premises in a reasonably safe condition. See Thompson v. Economy Super Marts, Inc., 221 Ill. App. 3d 263, 265 (1991). Accordingly, where a business invitee is injured by slipping and falling on defendant's premises, liability may be imposed if the substance was placed there by the negligence of the proprietor or his servants or, if the substance was on the premises through acts of third persons or there is no showing how it got there, liability may be imposed if the proprietor or his servant knew of its presence or if the substance was there a sufficient length of time so that in the exercise of ordinary care its presence should have been discovered. See Thompson, 221 Ill. App. 3d at 265.
There is also a rule in Illinois known as the natural-accumulation rule. The natural-accumulation rule provides that a landowner does not have a duty to a business invitee to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice. See Watson v. J.C. Penny Co. Inc., 237 Ill. App. 3d 976, 978 (1992). Even if the snow and ice remain on the property for an "unreasonable" length of time, it has been held that no liability will be imposed on the proprietor as long as the snow and ice is a natural accumulation. See Foster v. George J. Cyrus & Co., 2 Ill. App. 3d 274, 279 (1971) (where this court rejected a rule that would require property owners to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice after a reasonable length of time or be liable for injuries suffered by their tenants). However, if the snow or ice was produced or accumulated by artificial causes or if the snow or ice was produced or accumulated in an unnatural way because of defendant's own use of the area concerned, liability will be imposed. See McCann v. Bethesda Hospital, 80 Ill. App. 3d 544, 548 (1979).
The natural-accumulation rule was first recognized in Illinois by our supreme court in Graham v. City of Chicago, 346 Ill. 638 (1931). In Graham, plaintiff sued the City of Chicago when she slipped and fell on a patch of ice that had formed on a city sidewalk. The Illinois Supreme Court adopted the natural-accumulation rule, holding that it would be "unreasonable to compel a city to expend the money and perform the labor necessary to keep its walks reasonably free from ice and snow during winter months." Graham, 346 Ill. at 643.
This rule was later extended beyond cities and municipalities to allow landlords to escape liability for injuries incurred by tenants who slipped and fell on naturally accumulated snow and ice while on the landlord's premises. In Cronin v. Brownlie, 348 Ill. App. 448 (1952), a tenant slipped and fell on a walk that was covered with naturally accumulated snow and ice. This court applied the natural-accumulation rule and stated:
"In our northern climate where ice and snow come frequently and are accepted by all, it appears to us that the [natural-accumulation] rule adopted by the majority of the states finding no liability against the landlord is more reasonable and persuasive ***. *** [I]t appears to us to be unreasonable and somewhat impractical to require a landlord to remove ice and snow from sidewalks used ...