With the recent blizzard “NEMO” behind us and the cleanup ongoing, some may think the worst is over, but tenants, homeowners and private landowners should think twice. Property maintenance during or after severe snow storms can often be overlooked and when it is, injuries can happen. Built-up ice can cause slips and falls, snow and ice accumulation on rooftops can cause falling debris, and improper snow removal can cause auto accidents. Statistics show that over 1 million people are injured from slip and fall accidents each year due to snow and ice. So whether you are a tenant, homeowner or business owner, here’s what you need to know in order to keep your property safe for anyone on it or passing by:
For Tenants (Residential and Commercial):
When it comes to snow and ice removal for tenants, it is not always clear as to which party to a lease is ultimately responsible for clean-up and snow removal. Whether you rent residentially or commercially, review your lease to determine who is responsible for snow and ice removal. Sometimes tenants bear full responsibility and sometimes the landlord will contract the work to a third party. In either circumstance, the property should be salted and sanded regularly to ensure that it is safe for anyone near the premise—being proactive is the best way to avoid any potential litigation or claims from people injured on your property.
Under Massachusetts law, homeowners have a little more responsibility when it comes to making sure their property is reasonably safe following a snow storm. Some cities and towns have ordinances requiring homeowners to shovel walkways and sidewalks – even if the walkway or sidewalk is owned by the city. Failure to comply with these laws could result in the homeowner facing a fine. In the event someone is injured due to a failure to clear a sidewalk, a homeowner’s violation of any city or town ordinance could be considered to be evidence of negligence in any civil lawsuit brought by the injured party. If a person is injured on your property due to snow and ice, courts in Massachusetts will look at whether or not your conduct in clearing snow and ice (or in failing to do so) was reasonable in light of the circumstances. That means sidewalks, driveways, and walkways are the areas that need the most attention as these are the most likely places where someone may slip or fall – failing to clear snow and ice from a walkway in front of your home that pedestrians use would typically not be “reasonable” unless there are mitigating circumstances. Should an injury occur on property you own, you should contact your homeowner’s insurance company immediately and provide it with all details of the event. Your insurer will help explain your liability and how to proceed going forward in the event a claim is brought against you. This is what insurance is for and why you pay for it.
For Business Owners:
On private commercial land (i.e., the parking lot of a shopping mall), the responsibility for snow and ice removal is usually contracted to a third party. Any private land owners doing so needs to set forth specific guidelines as to the scope of work to be performed, when it is to be performed, under what conditions it is to be performed and any follow-up work that is required in the days following a big storm. If you are the injured party on someone else’s property, it is wise to let the owner know immediately. Should the injury be serious, you may want to consult with an attorney to determine whether or not you have any legal recourse if your injury was caused by someone’s negligence in failing to properly or adequately removing snow and ice from a property.
An often overlooked yet common property danger that encompasses all three of these categories is adequate roof maintenance. Snow and ice that accumulates on the roofs can become a hazard as the temperature warms—debris can fall as a result and cause serious injuries. Property owners should monitor their roofs to learn whether or not this is a danger. If it is and the snow cannot be easily removed or removed in a timely fashion, a property owner would be wise to put up some form of warning to the public or guests alerting them to the problem and the danger. Knowing about a problem and the potential danger to the public and taking no steps to remedy the problem or warn people is often the type of behavior that juries do not look kindly upon in civil lawsuits.
Inclement weather, like a big snowstorm, can cause significant damage in a variety of different ways. Tenants, homeowners, and business owners do not, however, need to look far to find potential trouble on their property. Taking the necessary steps to avoid injuries is critical during the winter season and can avoid a homeowner’s numerous hassles in the future. Clearing driveways, walkways, and sidewalks are a start, but regular maintenance, vigilance and the application of salt and sand are also needed. The law does not require you to keep your property 100% free from any risks posed by snow and ice or take every possible step to avoid any type of accident - it simply requires that you take reasonable steps to protect people and prevent accidents from occurring on your property.
David McCormack has been a principal at Sugarman and Sugarman P.C. since 2011 after working as an associate since 2003. He represents claims involving serious injury in a broad range of civil practice. For more information visit www.sugarman.com.