Follow Four Tips to Minimize Winter Slip-and-Fall Liability
At the beginning of every winter season, many site managers begin to worry about the possibility of being hit with slip-and-fall lawsuits filed by residents or guests. Although it’s inevitable that accidents will occur, the management can try to make the site as safe as possible for residents and consequently avoid liability for any slip-and-fall accidents.
We’ll give you four tips to follow, and provide a Model Letter: Remind Residents of Hazardous Winter Conditions, which you can send to your residents at the beginning of winter. It gives them guidelines to follow to avoid injury and asks them to be cautious.
Tip #1: Check Your State and Local Law
Ask your attorney what your state and local laws say about snow and ice removal. Some states or localities may require you to remove snow and ice—and give you a deadline for doing the job. For example, owners in New York City must remove snow from sidewalks within four hours after the snow stops falling if the snow stops anytime between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. If you don’t comply with state and local laws, you could face a fine. Also, if a resident is injured, your violation of the law could be used to prove you were negligent.
In other states and localities, you may have no legal duty to remove snow and ice from common areas. And if you do make efforts to remove snow and ice in these states or localities, you can’t be found liable if a resident injures himself.
Tip #2: Don’t Allow ‘Unnatural’ Snow and Ice Accumulation
You can be held responsible for “unnatural accumulations” of snow and ice on your site, whether or not your state or local law requires snow and ice cleanup.
Under the natural accumulation rule, an owner has no duty to remove or warn of the dangers of natural accumulations of snow, ice, and freezing rain, and it isn’t liable for injuries caused by natural accumulations of snow. A rationale for the natural accumulation rule is that natural accumulation of ice and snow is open and obvious, and owners have a right to expect that residents and guests will recognize the danger and proceed carefully.
It follows that a site is liable if it creates an unnatural accumulation of ice and snow or makes a natural accumulation of ice or snow worse. An unnatural accumulation of ice and snow results from the act of a person, rather than an act of nature. To establish that there’s an unnatural accumulation of ice or snow, an injured resident or guest must prove that the site created the hazard or added to it, that the owner or management knew or should have known of the hazard, and that the condition was substantially more hazardous than it would have been if it were in its naturally accumulated state.
An example of an unnatural accumulation of ice is where water drips or runs out of a gutter and freezes on an area, such as a sidewalk, where the site should know people will walk. Or if a staff member shovels snow into a large pile and it begins to melt and the runoff refreezes, this is also unnatural accumulation.
Tip #3: If You Remove Snow and Ice, Do It Right
Whether or not local law requires it, most sites where snow falls try to clean up snow and ice. But if you plow, shovel, or sand, be sure you do it right. You can be liable if you don’t do a good job—even if you are removing snow and ice voluntarily and not because local law requires it. Once you begin removing snow and ice, you create an obligation to do it properly, advises Ohio attorney James Bownas. If you do a bad job or stop plowing when you’ve been plowing all winter, you could be liable if someone falls.
Tip #4: Send Residents a Letter with Safety Tips
It’s a good idea to send residents a letter at the beginning of winter alerting them to snow and ice hazards. If you have a site newsletter, you can include it there, either in addition to or in place of a letter to each resident.
The letter should say that the site cannot guarantee anyone’s safety in snow and ice and that residents must be careful. Our Model Letter also gives them guidelines to follow to avoid injury. You can include additional logistical information, too. In our letter, we tell residents that they might have to move their cars to facilitate plowing. You can adapt the letter to include your specific parking policy.
James Bownas, Esq.: Shareholder, Zaino and Humphrey LPA, 5775 Perimeter Dr., Ste. 275, Dublin, OH 43017; www.zandhlpa.com.
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