As a homeowner, you have certain responsibilities when it comes to maintaining the safety and security of your property. Depending on where you live, you may have maintenance responsibilities too. Some homeowner associations require property owners to keep their lawn short and the driveway free of broken down vehicles.
What about during the winter months? Do you have the responsibility to keep the sidewalk in front of your home clear and free of ice and snow? What happens if you fail to shovel your sidewalk, can someone sue you? Here’s some useful information on the law, and what you should know.
Local Law Determines Legal Responsibility for Snow Removal
Interestingly, there is no federal law that requires homeowners to keep their property and adjacent sidewalks free and clear of snow. The sidewalk adjacent to residential property is considered public property, and therefore, not the homeowner’s responsibility. The driveway and walkway leading to the home however, is considered personal property, and clear homeowner liability exists for slips and falls in these areas.
While the federal laws on sidewalk snow removal are vague, at the local level, cities and towns have their own rules that must be followed. City ordinances and local laws dictate your legal obligation to remove snow and ice from public sidewalks and walkways next to your property.
While personal responsibility has a role to play, and everyone should know the risks created by accumulations of snow and ice, if you fail to follow local law, you may be required to pay a fine. In the event someone is injured as a result of snow or ice you did not remove, you could be held liable and sued in civil court for hospital bills, and maybe even pain and suffering.
Residential Versus Commercial Property Legal Obligation
As a residential homeowner, if local laws do not require you to shovel snow from the sidewalk, you could still be sued. For example, if you shovel the sidewalk (public property) in front of your home and miss a thin layer of ice underneath the snow and someone slips, you’re responsible. In this case, the law says that by shoveling, you created a new danger (that didn’t exist before) for a pedestrian.
Commercial property owners have a much higher ‘duty of care’ as it relates to sidewalk liability. Business owners have the responsibility to ‘use reasonable care’ to ensure all sidewalks adjacent to the property are safe for pedestrians.
Rental Property – Landlord or Tenant Responsibility?
As a landlord, if you rent a single-family property, you may be able to include snow removal responsibility in the rental lease agreement, making your tenant responsible. However, if you own multi-family rental property, you may be required to ensure common areas—parking lots, walkways and sidewalks are properly shoveled.
Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, it is your responsibility to find out who has the duty to remove snow on the property. Property owners sometimes choose to hire snow removal services to plow the driveway or parking area, but the sidewalk may be the tenant’s obligation.
While the majority of snow related, slip and fall liability cases tend to result from injuries that occur outside grocery stores, gas stations or other local businesses, homeowners have the obligation to know the law surrounding snow removal in their area.