As you head out into the frigid temperatures to shovel the snow or throw salt on your driveway or sidewalk, you might consider your options. According to Missouri law, homeowners do not have an automatic duty to remove the snow and ice. But before you throw away your snow shovel, you should know that there are at least three exceptions or situations by which you may have the responsibility to remove snow and ice.
1. If the snow or ice is unnatural or something not found in the community generally, then you may have a duty to remove it. For example, if a pipe bursts and ice accumulates on your sidewalk, more than likely you are responsible for removing or correcting the hazard. If on the other hand, the snow or ice was formed by the forces of nature you may have no particular responsibility to do anything.
2. If a contractual obligation of some type exists, then you may have a duty to clear ice or snow. For example, some contracts or agreements, like a lease or subdivision restrictions, require you to maintain your sidewalk, driveway, etc., and often include the removal of snow or ice. Therefore, you should carefully review these documents to see if you have any defined responsibility to clear the wintery debris. In some instances, homeowners may have a duty to their local municipality to clear their sidewalks. However, the obligation to the municipality is often related to fallen tree limbs, trash, or other obstacles on walkways. Local ordinances will articulate any such obligation, and you should make sure you are aware of the law in your area.
3. The most common situation that leads to responsibility to adequately clear snow and ice is when the homeowner voluntarily accepts the duty by removing snow and ice. Once you undertake the task of removing heaps of snow or throw salt around, you then establish a duty to exercise “reasonable” care in doing so. What is reasonable? Good question. Some case law suggests that if you clear off one small area of your sidewalk or steps, you may now be responsible for all of the snow or ice covered areas on your property. Even worse, you may be required to shovel more snow and/or throw more salt if, after you clear the walkway, more snow or ice accumulates. The idea is that if a walkway is in its “natural” condition, pedestrians will know to be careful. But, if the walkway appears to be cleared of the icy accumulation, the pedestrians will let their guard down and have a reasonable expectation that the area should be free of a dangerous condition.
So when you have braved the elements to clear your driveway or walkway, but then the pizza guy or overnight delivery driver slips and falls, you may still find yourself responsible for his or her injuries. There are various issues involved. Did you completely clear a reasonable pathway for pedestrians? Did the pedestrian use the pathway you cleared? Despite your efforts, did more snow or ice accumulate since you last shoveled and threw the salt? If there was more accumulation or you missed a spot, should any pedestrians have seen the slippery spot and therefore have used more caution themselves while walking in the wintery elements? There are too many variables to give a precise answer that applies to each case regarding whether you as the homeowner will be found liable for the delivery person’s injuries. Needless to say, winter weather provides not only a slippery surface upon which to walk, but a slippery slope of legal issues.
For a discussion about whether a commercial property owner or lessee has a responsibility to clear snow or throw salt on the sidewalk and parking lot in front of their business, see our next blog.
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#snow #homeowners insurance #liability #Missouri Law