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Seasonal Trivia: Clearing Snow and Ice

What are the reasonable time frames for clearing snow and ice? When should responsible property owners clear residential walkways and driveways? What about landlords and owners of commercial properties? Also, explain when icy conditions can prevent an owner from being liable for a slip and fall.

A: This is a great, multi part question. There is no simple answer. First, let’s start with the general rule.

Since January of 1962, in a case called Rinaldi v. Levine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized there is a great deal of ice and snow in Pennsylvania in winter . The high court said it would be unreasonable to expect a property owner to immediately clear the abundant ice and snowfall each and every time it happens. In its natural state, ice and snow is an open and obvious condition.

The court did not come right out and say, “you don’t have to clear it.” Rather, the Court said in its natural state, the presence of ice and snow presents an open and obvious danger. Over the years, this has led to the creation of the “hills and ridges” doctrine.

Here is what this technical doctrine has come to mean over the years in Pennsylvania jurisprudence:

  • If a) snow and ice accumulates in its natural state and has not been altered after it has fallen,
  • b) no one has walked on it and created hills and ridges within or on the snow or ice, and
  • c) it is generally icy and snowy everywhere, not just in patches,

Then, the property owner is probably not liable to he who falls because of the natural ice and snow accumulatiion. As you can see, this rule of non-liability has three big caveats (a, b and c above).

Nonetheless, it is probably safer to leave it as is than to do a subpar job of clearing the snow and ice, because the law is much, much harsher on landowners who have artifically created a dangerous condition than those who left a natural condition in its natural state– as it was. You messed with it. You made it into something different than what would reasonably have been expected by a passer-by, who expected it to be in its natural state.

The reasoning is, a passer-by expects it to be there. He knows it is there. The owner had no duty to clear what was obvious and recent and known to everyone.

However, if a passer-by tripped on an irregularity in the obvious snow and ice, that irregularity was not obvious. The passerby would not have known to look for it. The natural state of weather has changed. Now, the owner has a duty to clear it, since it has formed in a dangerous and unexpected way, i.e., in hills and ridges.

Different type of case

So far, we have been speaking of liability as in an owner being sued for negligence for not clearing the snow and ice off her publicly accessible walkways. This is different from the next issue, which is your governmental liability for penalties for failing to clear snow and ice off your publicly accessible walkways in a prescribed period of time. This “penalty” for violation of a local ordinance, like a noise ordinance, has nothing to do with tort liability for someone falling on your property and claiming to be hurt. This failure to act results in money you would owe to your local governmental authority– not an injured person– for breaking its ordinance.

We cannot tell you how long you have to clear snow and ice off your publicly accessible property to avoid a fine. It can be different for every township or municipality. We have seen time frames as short as 6 hours and as long as 12 hours. This time frame is determined by the ordinance passed by each individual township. If you violate this ordinance, a plaintiff can use your violation of it, to a limited degree, in trying to prove you were negligent for not clearing it. However, generally, the issue of receiving a fine for not clearing snow and ice off your property has nothing to do with the hills and ridges doctrine or non-liability of an owner for leaving snow and ice as it is when the conditions are generally icy outside.

Moral of the story: clear the snow and ice within the time period per your township or municipality. This will protect you from being fined for violating the local ordinance. More importantly, this may prevent injuries. Stay warm, and stay safe.

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