So let's say that a major blizzard just tore through your neighborhood. You have 10 to 12 inches of the white stuff piled up on your sidewalk, walkway, driveway, etc. Like most people you dread what has to be done next, but hey, someone's gotta do it. You boot up, grab your snow shovel and the bag of snow salt you have stashed out in the shed. You get to work shoveling pile after pile into even larger piles until, wahlaa! You now have a clear walkway. Then you salt that sucker so that it stays that way. You go inside and make a cup of hot cocoa for a job well done.
But wait....you forgot to salt that one patch of ice. And the local morning jogger has just decided to take a slip on it. As he lies on the floor, writhing in pain, he threatens to sue. Now what do you do? Can you really be sued for this?
Know Your Rights
In regards to shoveling, there are many situations where the law is either clear, ambiguous, or somewhere in between. Therefore, to make things simple let's first analyze the situation where you as the property owner choose not to shovel. You just leave the sidewalk as mother nature intended, with a pile of snow.
Well, as it turns out not shoveling is legally the safest option. As far as liability goes, "as long as the snow was a normal accumulation and you did nothing to exacerbate the danger," you can't really be held liable for any mishap that occurs. One reason for this is an Ohio supreme court case, the background of which is described below:
" Richard and Nadine Ross invited Carol and Charles Bankman to visit at their home. The Rosses knew that their walkway was hazardous because of an accumulation of ice and snow, but they failed toshovel or salt the walk. As Carol Bankman approached, she slipped on ice that was concealed by the snow and was seriously injured. She subsequently sued, but her case was thrown out by the trial court.
The 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals (Franklin County) reversed the trial court and reinstated Bankman's case. The appellate court ruled that "when a homeowner knows of a hazardous condition on the homeowner's premises caused by a natural accumulation of ice and snow, and the homeowner expressly invites a social guest to visit . . . the homeowner owes a duty to the guest to take reasonable steps to remove the hazard and to warn the guest of the dangerous condition.
The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and agreed with the trial court's dismissal of the case.
The Supreme Court ruled that property owners have no duty "to eliminate natural accumulations of ice and snow from sidewalks" or even to warn of the dangers. The court explained: "Living in Ohio during the winter has its inherent dangers. . . . Perhaps [the Rosses] should have shoveled and salted the sidewalk as a matter of courtesy to their guests. However, we find that Ohio law imposed no such obligation." All of the justices agreed that "everyone is assumed to appreciate the risks associated with natural accumulations of ice and snow and, therefore, everyone is responsible to protect himself or herself." (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio; December 29,. 2002)
Apparently, the Ohio Supreme Court's main goal in this ruling was to prevent a flood of seasonal lawsuits, both legitimate and fraudulent, that could befall the courts if they ruled in any other way. For example, if they ruled that the Ross's were obligated to shovel their driveway, there might be a spike in lawsuits after every snowstorm. Now let's look at the case of actually shoveling your space.
Now I'm not trying to say that shoveling is necessarily a bad thing. It's actually good. It keeps sidewalks clear and neighbors friendly. Yet, the truth is, there is a legitimate legal reason to not clean your sidewalk after a snowstorm. Let me explain. As I stated above, you are not liable if the snow is the result of normal accumulation, and you did nothing to exacerbate the danger. However, the act of shoveling does deviate from what is called "normal accumulation." And God forbid that you shovel improperly and leave a slippery patch for someone to slip on. Here is a later case involving a woman and an Applebees franchise in Dayton, Ohio:
Linda Gober slipped and was injured on the stairs when leaving an Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar in Dayton. Her lawsuit was thrown out by the trial court, but the 2nd Ohio District Court of Appeals (Montgomery County) reinstated her claims based primarily on the testimony of an expert witness.
The expert testified that the concrete surface of the steps "was badly finished, resulting in depressions that allowed precipitation to accumulate or 'puddle' on the steps." The restaurant had brushed the snowto the sides of the steps to let persons pass, but the "probable source of the ice on the step where Gober fell was runoff from the melting of snow piled at the sides of the steps."Had Applebee's left the snow untouched, in its "natural" condition, it probably would have escaped potential liability. (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio; December 29,. 2002)
So the moral of the story is, you may get into some trouble if you haven't cleaned up your space properly. But don't let that deter you from doing so. It's just common courtesy.
There are situations where shoveling or not shoveling come in direct conflict. For example some smaller municipalities and communities have ordinances requiring and property owner to shovel a nearby sidewalk. And if the sidewalk is not shoveled they can be fined. In these cases, shoveling may still open you up to liability for slip and fall accidents. Yet, if you don't you may be fined. You stuck between a rock and hard place. Deal with it.
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Rouillie on January 08, 2011:
I love the polar bear pic, it makes me titter everytime I see it! The article is great too.