If you live in a part of the country where it snows, you and your kids probably enjoy the sight of a fresh blanket of snow. Your kids get eager to sled or ice skate, and maybe even get a day off school. You may enjoy the scenery or the nostalgia of remembering your childhood days in the snow.
Snow isn't all fun and games, though.
In 2010 and early 2011, snow wreaked havoc across the US, causing personal injuries and property damage. After a heavy snowfall, roofs on homes, parking garages, and other buildings began collapsing in parts of Pennsylvania. The same happened to a multi-unit apartment building in Connecticut.
In Minnesota, heavy snow collapsed the roof of an NFL stadium - luckily it was empty.
And don't forget about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of injuries suffered by people as they tried to stay upright while walking along sidewalks and though parking lots.
Are you legally liable if someone gets hurt because of snow or ice on your property? In other words, can the person sue you, or are there other legal consequences? Possibly, yes. It depends on the laws in your area.
Many towns, cities and states have laws on the books requiring property owners to remove snow from their property. For example, as of 2010, property owners in Massachusetts are legally required to remove snow and ice from any area where visitors, tenants, or the general public might travel frequently.
The law applies to private property owners - the sidewalk in front of your home - as well as commercial property - mall parking lots and storefront walkways, for example.
In some states, like Ohio and Illinois, property owners aren't legally required to remove snow from their premises. However, a property owner may be face legal problems if, for example:
- A lease or rental agreement requires the landlord to remove snow from sidewalks, parking lots or other common areas
- The owner's negligence caused an unnatural accumulation of ice or snow, such as damaged or improperly attached downspouts or an unrepaired crack in the sidewalk
- The snow or ice removal made the area more dangerous, such as buy smoothing snow into a sheet of ice
Penalties vary, too. In addition to possible lawsuits, violating state or local snow removal laws usually include fines.
When it comes to roofs, the legal issue usually boils down to negligence - did the property owner fail to do something he was legally obligated to do? For example, laws usually require commercial buildings to be built strong enough to withstand a certain stresses, like high winds and heavy snow. If a building isn't built to those standards, the owner may be legally responsible if the building fails.
Likewise, if a private property owner or residential landlord knew or reasonably should have known that heavy snow threatened a roof collapse, the owner or landlord could be legally liable if it actually happens.
What You Can Do
For property owners:
- Know the snow removal laws in your area. Check your state laws, as well as the ordinances in your city or town
- Take care to remove snow and ice properly
- Hire a professional service to remove snow and ice. Yes, it costs you money, but it saves you time, and if it's not done properly, the service - not you - may be legally responsible for any injury or property damage
- Have your building inspected periodically for structural problems
- Check with your insurance company to make sure snow-related injuries and damages are covered by your property insurance
For pedestrians, visitors, and tenants, it's important to:
- Understand the environment and recognize any danger posed by ice or snow in your path
- Read your lease or rental agreement to see who's responsible for snow removal
- Get renter's insurance. If the roof collapses, the landlord's property insurance doesn't cover your damaged personal property
A winter wonderland is meant to be enjoyed. Knowing your rights and duties when it comes to snow removal can make it more enjoyable for everyone.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do we have snow removal laws in our city or state?
- What's the first thing I should do if I slip and fall on snow or ice on someone else's property?
- Can a tenant ever be liable for injuries to a guest caused by snow and ice on common areas of the rented property, like a driveway?