Look Out Below

What are you supposed to do when you encounter these sidewalk warnings? How do building managers decide where to place them? And if you get hit, what are the chances you’d win a lawsuit? The answers, alas, are not as clear as ice.
It’s like winning the lottery, only not in the good way.

The chance of an individual being struck by a chunk of ice is remote. But not impossible, which imbues a winter stroll along Chicago’s downtown streets with the thrilling ambience of a casino: Will you be the one? Or will it be that guy over there?

The familiar proliferation of “Caution: Falling Ice” signs is a knee-high reminder of a season-specific truism: Living in Chicago — whose downtown is a gray thicket of tall buildings at the topmost edges of which water freezes and melts, freezes and melts — means dodging the occasional but inevitable dagger of ice in its blind descent.

But even veteran pedestrians may wonder what, precisely, is one supposed to do when encountering the falling-ice signs? Cross the street — where one bumps into yet another battalion of the ominous messages? Walk in the middle of the street? Wear a bicycle helmet? Stay home?

How do building maintenance folk decide where to place the signs and how, exactly, to word them? Is “Warning” better than “Caution”? Or would a pithy but somewhat hysterical “Look out” be better yet? Is an exclamation point simply overkill?

And if, heaven forbid, you are hit by a plummeting chunk of ice, what are your chances of getting a corresponding chunk of change in a settlement from the building owner?

The answers, it turns out, are not easy or straightforward. In other words: Ice may start out clear, but on the way down, things get murky.

If you think you’re seeing more “Falling Ice” signs this year than in years past, you’re probably right, say Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist for WGN-Ch. 9, and David Stout, interim director of facilities, operations and maintenance for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who patrols the perimeter of 3.5 million square feet of building space to keep it free of falling ice.

“The winters in the past several years seem prone to huge temperature variations, which cause that freeze-thaw cycle,” explains Skilling. “And January has some of the biggest extremes.”

That makes downtown Chicago, with its plethora of cloud-piercing buildings whose decorative accouterments bring architectural junkies no end of pleasure, a haven for falling ice that’s looking for trouble.

“There’s much more of an awareness now [of the danger of falling ice],” says Stout, who has worked for the hospital for almost three decades.

“It’s nothing to take lightly,” adds Skilling. “Those ice shards can do some terrible harm.”

Variety of injuries

Falling objects, from ice to tiles, can cause a variety of injuries. If they land on the head, they can cause traumatic brain injury, which may result in disability or death. Moreover, the force of impact of plummeting ice can knock down the unsuspecting pedestrian, causing additional injuries.

“If it falls from a distance, it’s a missile,” declares Michael J. Smith, a professor in the University of Wisconsin’s industrial and systems engineering department.

Late last year, the streets around the Sears Tower were cordoned off by Chicago police after several people reported witnessing ice on its way down from the story building.

In a three-day period five years ago, at least a dozen people required hospital treatment for injuries including head and neck cuts, prompting police to barricade some downtown streets.

Thus there is nothing amusing or whimsical about falling ice, although the signs — arrayed in seemingly random patterns along the sidewalks, displaying various colors and shapes and rhetorical strategies — have become a punch line among passersby, as many people wonder how badly you could hurt yourself by tripping over a “Falling Ice” sign while looking up to check for . . . falling ice.

The signs have become a regular feature of downtown Chicago, so familiar as to gradually grow invisible.

Which constitutes a significant challenge, says Smith, who specializes in a field called human factors engineering — a blend of psychology and engineering.

“Signs have been around a long time,” Smith says. “But human factors engineering asks, ‘What should the sign say? Will it have an influence on behavior? How do you go about getting the right words?'”

His field, Smith says, “is about figuring out if a sign has any probability of getting the behavior you hoped for.”

Still, he admits, “a warning is not an effective way of keeping people away from risk. Maybe they can’t read the sign — maybe they don’t want to read the sign. Signs can’t educate — they can only have enough information to define the risk.

“The theory in engineering is, first you design out the risk — build a building that doesn’t allow ice to form at the top.” And if that’s impossible? “Then you block access to the hazard. Third, you warn and supervise, such as having a cop say, ‘You can’t go there.'”

Every building seems to have its own version of the falling ice sign: say, black lettering on a white background; or white lettering on a black background; or red lettering with yellow trim; or black lettering on gold with red trim.

Is the variety a good or bad thing, warning-wise?

“Bad,” Smith says. “It will confuse people. Think about the characteristics of signs for drivers — you have uniformity.”

Stout and other building managers have a daunting task: putting signs where they’ll do the most good. “It’s just common sense,” Stout says. “We put them close to entrances, so people are aware when they’re coming in and out.”

But Stout notes the paradox of ice-hazard signage: “I’ve watched people, especially along Michigan Avenue, walk further out from buildings when they see the signs. Then in the next block, where there aren’t any signs, they walk close to the buildings again.” The absence of signs is somehow — and illogically — equated with the absence of risk.

The legal ramifications of injuries from falling ice can be equally illogical, says Paul Nemoy, a Chicago attorney.

Confusing in case law

“It’s a screwy area. It’s very confusing in the case law. It’s not well settled,” reports Nemoy, whose firm, Howard & Nemoy, specializes in personal injury cases.

“But that’s not to say somebody won’t get plunked on the head today and there won’t be a big lawsuit coming,” he adds.

If someone walked into his office today, rubbing her arm and muttering, “Damned ice!” would Nemoy take the case?

“It depends on how badly you were hurt,” he says. “I haven’t had a falling-ice case in a long time. What we have a lot of, this time of year, are people slipping and falling on the ice. Typically, that is snow pushed or piled up that melts and freezes.”

The key concept in Illinois law, Nemoy says, is what’s known as the “natural accumulation rule”: A business generally is not responsible for snow and ice that builds up as a natural consequence of the elements.

“Unnatural accumulation,” Nemoy adds, “is, say, a leak in a gutter or downspout, where water artificially gathers. There’s a duty on the part of the owner to maintain property in safe condition. Another classic is a pothole or crack in the pavement that fills with water — there’s an unnatural accumulation.”

Courts generally hold that ice on buildings is a natural part of winter, Nemoy says. “The [‘Falling Ice’] sign can arguably shift responsibility and burden. The pedestrian is put on notice — if I walk past this building, maybe I should cut a wide berth.

“Still,” adds Nemoy, “arguments can be made that a building owner should be taking steps to protect the public passing by. Maybe they should get it [the ice] off sooner.”

Safe entrances
In two recent cases, he notes, appellate courts have held that businesses should provide safe means of entering and exiting their buildings — rulings that seem to bypass the “natural accumulation” argument altogether.

“If you got really whacked,” Nemoy says, “the buildings would probably have to pay, and there are a couple of different routes of recovery you could take.”

“I just got plunked myself when I was walking to work this morning,” he adds. “Just a small piece.”

So what can you do to protect yourself, short of wearing a hooded sweatshirt made of chain mail? Precious little, actually. The general consensus is that people should heed signage and walk as far away from the buildings as possible. “It [ice] tends to fall straight down,” Stout says. “Unless it breaks against the sides of the building,” and creates a spray of ice.

But life has some inherent, unavoidable risks, and one of them is the possibility — slim but real — that a chunk of falling ice may one day single you out.

Is it more consoling to think that God is gunning for you or to see it as a rotten piece of luck? Thomas Hardy wrestled with the question 138 years ago in his poem “Hap.”

Give him the former any day, Hardy concludes: If but some vengeful god would call to me/From up the sky, and laugh: ‘Thou suffering thing,/Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,/That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!’

But, no. These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown/Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

In other words: Watch your step, friend, and look out below.

Words of warning
LEGALLY: “It’s a screwy area. It’s very confusing in the case law. It’s not well settled. . . . But that’s not to say somebody won’t get plunked on the head today and there won’t be a big lawsuit coming.”

— Personal injury attorney Paul Nemoy

METEOROLOGICALLY: “The winters in the past years seem prone to huge temperature variations.”

— Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist, WGN-TV

PSYCHOLOGICALLY: “A warning is not an effective way of keeping people away from risk.”

— Dr. Michael J. Smith, professor of industrial and systems engineering, University of Wisconsin

PRACTICALLY: “We put them [“Falling Ice” signs] close to the entrances, so people are aware when they’re coming in. It tends to fall straight down. Unless it breaks against the side of the building.”

— David Stout, interim director of facilities, operations and maintenance, Northwestern Memorial Hospital

POETICALLY: “The frost is on the wane,/And cobwebs hanging close outside the pane/Pose as festoons of thick white worsted there . . . “

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