If you own a home or other property in a part of the country where snow is common, you're probably pretty familiar with snow removal techniques, whether you clear your property yourself or you pay someone else to do it. But you may not be as familiar with premises liability rules and your legal obligations when it comes to keeping your property free of accumulated snow and ice. Failure to meet these obligations could open you up to liability in a slip and fall claim if someone falls or is otherwise injured on your property.
Who Is Responsible for Snow Removal?
When accumulated ice or snow plays a role in causing an injury -- a visitor slips and falls on an icy walkway, for example -- one of the first questions that will need answering is: Who was responsible for removing the accumulated ice or snow? It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the answer depends in large part on where the accident took place.
Many towns, cities and states have laws on the books requiring property owners to remove snow from their property, and many of these laws are evolving to place more responsibility on property owners.
For example, in Massachusetts, prior to 2010, property owners typically were not liable for incidents caused by the “natural accumulation” of ice or snow on their property. But in 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down a key decision changing that longstanding rule. Now, property owners are required to take reasonable steps to remove snow and ice from any area where visitors, tenants, or the general public might travel frequently, when the snow or ice could create a dangerous property condition. The court in Papadopolous v. Target Corp. found it “not reasonable for a property owner to leave snow or ice on a walkway where it is reasonable to expect that a hardy New England visitor would choose to risk crossing the snow or ice, rather than turn back or attempt an equally or more perilous walk around it.” (Learn more about Massachusetts Snow and Ice Removal Laws, from Mass.gov.)
In addition to obligations set by state and local law, property owners and others could be bound by contractual language when it comes to ice and snow removal, and the ubiquitous legal doctrine of negligence could also impose liability if snow removal action (or failure to take action) is deemed unreasonable under the circumstances. For example, a property owner/manager, landlord, or business may face legal problems if:
- a lease, rental agreement, or other contract requires the removal of snow from sidewalks, parking lots or other common areas, and these obligations go unmet
- the person or entity allows an unnatural or potentially dangerous accumulation of ice or snow on their property, doesn’t take reasonable steps to remedy the situation, and someone is injured as a result; or
- the person or entity’s attempts at snow or ice removal made the area more dangerous, by smoothing snow into a sheet of ice, for example.
Tips for Property Owners and Property Visitors
When it comes to the accumulation and removal of ice and snow, property owners should make sure they:
- Get familiar with snow removal laws at the local and state level.
- Consider hiring a professional service to remove snow and ice. Yes, it costs money, but it saves time, and if removal is not done properly, the company (and not the property owner) will most likely be legally responsible for any slip and fall injuries or property damage.
- Have the building and surrounding area inspected periodically for structural problems.
- Check with the insurance company to make sure snow-related injuries and damages are covered by the policy. (Learn more about homeowner's insurance and slip and fall claims.)
For pedestrians, visitors, and tenants, it's important to:
- Understand the environment and recognize any danger posed by ice or snow in your path.
- Read your lease or rental agreement to see who is responsible for snow removal.
- Talk to an experienced attorney if you slip or fall and suffer an injury because of accumulated ice or snow. Learn more about what to ask a slip and fall attorney during your free consultation.