Let’s talk about snow and ice on your property. This is a tricky subject. We will keep it brief and basic for now. First, every township or city has an ordinance that says how long you have until after snowfall to clear snow and ice from your sidewalk. That is NOT what we are talking about here. This means you can be fined for violation of such an ordinance. It is like being fined for taking out your trash too early. That is a separate question from whether you can successfully be sued. Just because you did, or didn’t, violate an ordinance in how long it took you to shovel the snow does not necessarily correlate with whether you will likely win or lose the lawsuit. Violating it can be used against you in a personal injury lawsuit—but only to a point. It does not mean the Plaintiff will definitely win the lawsuit against you. Likewise, the fact that you complied with the snow clearing ordinance does not mean you will definitely win if you are sued. It is not a defense. The violation of an ordinance is a different thing than common law liability for allowing snow and ice to remain on your property in dangerous formation or not clearing it in a proper fashion.
Next, here are some guidelines to help you manage the risk:
If it is generally slippery and icy outside, such as an hour after a snowstorm, and someone falls on ice that has NOT formed in irregular, jagged ways, you probably are not liable (you can still be sued but you should win). This is an unavoidable condition of the land in the Winter. This is to be expected, according to our Supreme Court (dating back to Rinaldi v. Levine, 1962). Natural conditions caused by inclement weather in this hemisphere are to be expected, the Court has said. If it is natural, even a day after the snowfall, and there are no hills and ridges in the ice, there is a good chance you will not be liable for someone falling on the smooth ice.
It is better to leave it in its natural state than to clear it but do a lousy job of clearing it. Leave it be or clear it properly, uniformly and completely. But don’t do something in the middle. Or let your teenage son do it without checking on his work and making him go back to do it right. The homeowner has to be sure if he undertakes a duty to clear the snow and ice from his sidewalk, that he does it right.
The law figures, a bystander or pedestrian is on notice of the natural conditions. He can see the snow on your sidewalk. He can see the ice on your sidewalk. He knows what to expect. He knows there is snow and ice everywhere. If he falls, that’s on him. He chose to go outside knowing the conditions outside, so long as they were what he expected them to be (in their natural state).
BUT, if you messed with it, by clearing some but not all of it, by making only a narrow path, the pedestrian didn’t expect that. He didn’t know you would leave a little patch of ice. He didn’t expect your path to be so narrow. He falls on the modified snow or ice, modified by you in an attempt to be a good citizen. Now there is a good chance you are liable for artificially creating a dangerous condition, one that didn’t formerly exist. Naturally dangerous conditions are far less likely to produce liability on the homeowner than artificially created ones. In other words, natural is better than artificial, so leave it in its natural state until you have the time to clear all of the snow and leave a wide path for people to walk on.
Our lawyers are highly knowledgeable in this field of law, called “premises liability.” One of them co-authored a premises liability law and forms textbook intended to educate OTHER lawyers seeking to represent someone in this type of case. Mr. Ostroff has personally handled hundreds of these premises liability cases, with many different kinds of dangerous conditions, not just snow and ice. He and his firm have handled cases involving tree branches, sewer grates, broken and uneven sidewalk blocks, rain gutters, leaky appliances, supermarket spills, parking lot trip and falls and more. Put our expertise to work for you. Call or email us with questions, knowing there is never a risk we will send you a bill for our time. All we ask is that when you need a lawyer, call us first. Even if it’s in an area of law we don’t practice, we can refer you to someone we know and trust and you won’t pay any more than you would have had you found someone out of the blue. We want to be the first name you think of when you think, “lawyer.” Unless you hate all lawyers, in which case… Nevermind (LOL). Happy holidays.