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What responsibility does the government have to clear the snow and ice from local roads and state routes?

snow removalThe governments (state and local) have a statutory responsibility to make their best efforts to maintain roadways, which includes to clear snow and ice from primary roadways. However, if your expectation is to sue the local or state government for their failure to do so, or to adequately do so, you may be dismayed to find there are a host of hurdles.

The Government’s Responsibility

In general, PennDOT is responsible to maintain roads falling within their jurisdictional boundaries.  They do not necessarily have to “make the road safe,” only to make it passable for foreseeable use under the prevailing weather conditions. There is no law requiring PennDOT to clear snow and ice at certain intervals or on a pre-determined basis.

In addition to that hurdle, both the local and state governments are generally immune from lawsuits by their citizens for acting in a negligent fashion.

There are certain exceptions.  However, to sue a municipality, city or township, you must not only find an exception to its general immunity from lawsuits, you must also prove you suffered a permanent loss of a bodily function to be eligible to sue.  Suing the state government requires proving that its action or omission was the primary cause of the accident, not driver error or any other third party’s actions.  For example, the lack of a guardrail may have helped allow a car to topple down a mountainside, but a negligent driver may have precipitated the collision in the first place.  In such a case, it would be very difficult to successfully sue PennDOT.

Do You Have to Clear Snow and Ice?

Let’s talk about what you, as a private property owner, are responsible to do in the event of snowfall on your property.  Most townships, municipalities and cities have local ordinances. They cover all kinds of things, including making too much noise, when to take your trash out, dog barking, leaf burning, etc. They also include how long you have until you must clear snow off the sidewalk in front of your property.

We have seen such ordinances require clearing as soon as 6 hours and as late as 12 hours after snowfall has ended. Failure to comply may result in a citation and fine, but it is not necessarily evidence of negligence needed to win a premises liability lawsuit if someone has fallen.

Failing to comply with such an ordinance is “negligence per se,” but it’s not necessarily the legal cause of the plaintiff’s harm.   Nonetheless, we certainly advise you to have snow cleared within the time period prescribed by your township or city.  For those who cannot do it themselves, the ordinance likely has no such exception. In other words, you would be required to hire someone to clear the snow.

Winter time is fraught with potential for liability.  We recommend you comply with local ordinances as to the time frame to remove snow and ice from your sidewalks.  However, remember that once altered from its natural state, snow can form in irregular heights. These “hills and ridges,” can make you liable if someone should fall on account of them.

The Moral of the Story

Clear snow and ice so as to leave no irregular, uneven layers.  Clear the snow and ice, but properly, leaving no patches of ice and no hills or ridges in any leftover snow.  Once you clear it, you have to clear all of it, or at least leave it in a  smooth state.

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