When winter arrives in New England, we should all be on the lookout for ice and snow on the roads, sidewalks and properties. Especially if you own a business, keeping an eye out is simply not enough. You need a plan of action to remove all accumulation within a reasonable timeframe. Otherwise, the next patron who passes through may slip on a patch of ice out front – and you will likely be held responsible.
Slip and fall injuries from ice and snow are often serious ordeals. Because individuals hit the ground hard and fast, the injuries go beyond scrapes and bruises and could possibly be life threatening. Injuries may require extensive treatment and therapy, reducing the injured party’s future employment opportunities.
What if the city owns that icy patch of pavement or the injured person was looking at a smartphone while walking? In cases like this, responsibility is not always clear but. Think about the following factors.
Property Owner’s Duty of Care
Property managers owe patrons and visitors some duty of care on business grounds, including the sidewalk and the parking lot. In general, this relationship requires the property owner to inspect and maintain the safety of all public areas.
With snow and ice in the picture, you’ll need to identify and remove any accumulation within a reasonable timeframe or put up clear signage indicating a hazard, should you not be able to address it in time. Failing to do either may be considered negligence on your part – even if the plow company you’ve contracted shows up late or does an incomplete job.
Duty of care is not applied uniformly. For instance, a business that works with customers should anticipate when daily activity will start and have the grounds in safe condition by then. Nearly identical duty applies to licensees or those visiting for social reasons. On the other hand, trespassers do not receive this degree of consideration, as they are unexpected visitors – often with nefarious or illicit intent.
If you slip and fall after a property owner has delayed or ignored cleaning ice and snow, you’ll need to prove:
- The property owner was or should have been aware of the conditions.
- The property owner failed to take appropriate steps to remove or treat the ice.
- The owner’s negligence is directly responsible for your injuries.
- Your injury is significant and can’t be traced back to your own personal negligence, inattention or reckless behavior.
A City or Town’s Responsibility
In some cases, the maintenance of a road or sidewalk may not be the responsibility of a business owner. Rather, the area is part of the town or city’s property and the local municipality is responsible for any upkeep. However, the same rules for proving negligence apply: You’ll need to show the conditions were unreasonably unsafe, to the point they posed a hazard to anyone passing through.
As a note, municipalities see the upkeep of public areas and buildings – no commercial buildings or private residences. Sidewalks in residential areas fall within the homeowner or building owner’s responsibility. If it’s in front of a commercial establishment, the property owner needs to clear it.
State and local governments often have immunity from litigation related to such accidents, although individuals may still be able to file a claim. Unlike with traditional personal injury lawsuits, your local town or city has their own procedures for filing a claim. You may need to send a written description of your claim within 30 days of the incident, possibly with the dollar amount specified, to the correct department. Failing to follow all procedures may bar you from filing your claim at all.
Homeowners and Private Residences
Many New Englanders have a neighbor who won’t shovel the sidewalk in front, instead leaving a large pile of snow and ice to melt. You are familiar with the hazard and know to avoid it, but what happens when a delivery person attempts to access the property and slips on the pavement or front steps?
In terms of private residences, the owner owes the visitor a similar duty of care, unless the injured individual was trespassing. However, because the homeowner isn’t a business owner, he or she is given some degree of leeway to identify and take steps to improve dangerous, slippery conditions.
Some states – including Connecticut – have comparative negligence laws, which base rewards on the plaintiff’s degree of responsibility for the accident – for instance, deliberately ignoring posted signs or rushing through a slippery area.
Whether you’re on business, personal or city grounds, you’re expected to act reasonably when walking through slippery, snowy conditions. Appropriate behavior may include:
- Looking out for and avoiding patches of ice.
- Walking slowly and taking small steps.
- Seeking alternate routes around snowy, slippery areas.
- Wearing weather-appropriate footwear.
If Snow Is Common in Your Area
Reasonable expectations of snow removal vary across the country. In New England and other Northern states, a “natural accumulation” rule stands, which provides the property owner some degree of leniency regarding the expected and typical amount of ice and snow accumulation. This rule introduces a few more points to consider:
- What is “natural” for the area? Is the accumulation great enough to pose a danger?
- Did the property owner interfere with accumulation? For instance, he or she piled snow right in front of the business and didn’t move it.
- When was the business owner expecting customers? Did he or she make an effort to remove snow and ice before this point?
- Are there town rules in place regarding snow removal, including for businesses and residences? Did the property owner or homeowner follow them?
- Is the ice a result of recent accumulation or older snow that’s now melting and freezing over?
- Was the snow or ice storm in the forecast, or was it a surprise overnight event?
- Are there aspects of the property – for instance, missing railings, a sloped surface or potholes – that cause more ice and snow than expected to accumulate in one spot? Does the property owner clearly label these areas for the hazards they present?
If you find yourself the victim of a slip and fall accident, document the conditions at the scene before snow and ice melt or get cleared away. Write your own account of what happened and see if you can get any witness statements.
If you believe you have a claim, bring it to the slip and fall lawyers at Trantolo & Trantolo. For more information, contact us today.