It’s January once again, which means much of the country will spend the next two or three months dealing, at least occasionally, with snow and ice. Some areas have rules about snow removal—a requirement to shovel your sidewalks within 24 hours of snowfall, for example—but not all, which potentially leaves pedestrians to deal with slippery walking surfaces.
If someone slips on your icy public sidewalk, it’s your responsibility and you can be held liable. But, what about your private driveway, stairs and walkways? Should you be responsible if someone comes on your private property and falls because of snow and ice? How does it differ if someone slips on black ice or other conditions of which you were unaware?
Liability and the Black Ice Distinction
Despite some variation in laws between states and even townships, you are almost always liable if someone slips and is injured on your property due to your inadequate snow and ice removal. Even if your area has no specific rules for how quickly you must shovel your walks, you are responsible for making sure your property is safe for others—which means clearing snow and ice as soon as reasonably possible. This doesn’t mean that you have to be out in a blizzard with a shovel, but when a storm has passed, you should address potentially slippery areas.
Personal injury attorneys say that, when it comes to snow and ice liability, black ice is particularly troublesome. Black ice is difficult to see, so it could be missed by a property owner. However, using this defense in a personal injury case disallows the owner from arguing that the defendant must have seen the black ice and walked on it anyway. Either way, you can avoid the whole issue by making sure you always remove snow and ice from the walking surfaces on your property in a timely manner.
“Slip and Fall” Lawsuits
“Slip and fall” lawsuits are based on an injury that occurs from a slip or fall due to a claim of negligence on the part of the property owner. The defense for a slip and fall case is typically either that the owner had no time to mitigate the danger before the accident occurred (for example, if it had only just started to snow and you were still at work when the person slipped on your icy driveway), or that the person should have reasonably seen the danger and avoided it (for example, they saw your ice-covered, steep driveway, and chose to walk on it anyway).
Slip and fall lawsuits tend to result in lower settlement amounts than other personal injury cases because of a general prejudice that people are generally responsible for their own clumsiness. They can also be difficult to prove. In order to be liable, the property owner had to be aware of the hazard, have had adequate time to correct the situation, and have failed to do so. Generally, if a homeowner is held liable, the damages are covered by homeowner’s insurance.
Reduce Your Liability
Obviously, the best way to reduce liability is to keep your property clear of hazards, including ice and snow. Keep in mind that shoveling doesn’t always remove ice—salt your stairs and walkways to melt ice or keep it from forming or, alternatively, sand icy areas to provide traction.
If, for some reason, you are personally unable to take care of hazardous ice and snow on your property, it’s worth the effort to get a neighbor, friend, or family member to clear your walks and stairs for you. Doing so many prevent both an injury and a lawsuit.