The snow season is about to begin, and with it, so will the rise of slip and fall accidents. Some winters can be relentless. For some reason, 20 inches of snow in March just does not drum up those same feelings as a “White Christmas.” Shoveling the sidewalk in front of your home can feel like a cruel joke after spending hours digging your car out of the driveway in order to get to work. The nagging question that typically results in the homeowner shoveling the sidewalk is: “What happens if someone slips and falls on my sidewalk that has not been shoveled?” --and for good reason. Slip and fall accidents involving snow and ice are very dangerous and often result in serious injuries. But are you legally obligated to shovel the sidewalk in front of your home?
Most towns, villages, and cities have specific ordinances that require property owners to clear the sidewalk in front of their property. However, such ordinances do not necessarily create a legal duty owed to a pedestrian walking on the sidewalk in front of your home.
Indeed, a homeowner’s failure to clear the sidewalk in front of his/her home in the Town of Hempstead does not automatically create liability for the homeowner for a slip and fall on snow or ice. The Town of Hempstead is actually responsible. However, the Town must have received prior written notice of the dangerous sidewalk conditions (which is often difficult in the case of weather-related conditions like snow and ice) in order to impose liability on the Town. The Village of Garden City has a comparable ordinance. Similarly, the Town of North Hempstead Code does not contain language imposing tort liability on abutting landowners for the breach of a duty to maintain sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition. See Code of the Town of North Hempstead §§ 48-1 to 48-15.
However, many other municipalities on Long Island, including the Village of Mineola, Village of Hempstead, and the Town of Oyster Bay, have ordinances that specifically create a legal duty for abutting property owners for injuries caused by unsafe conditions (such as snow and ice) on sidewalks.
The Code for the Village of Mineola reads as follows:
In the event that the owner and/or occupant of any premises abutting a sidewalk, path and/or public thoroughfare shall fail to [remove snow and ice], and personal injury . . . shall result from such failure, the owner and/or occupant of the premises shall be liable to all persons who are injured . . . as a result of such noncompliance.
The Code for the Village of Hempstead specifically requires that “[t]he owner [or] occupant of any real property shall, within 12 hours after the snow ceases to fall, remove the snow from the paved public walkway adjacent to such real property and keep the same free from snow and ice . . . In the event that personal injury or property damage shall result from the failure of any owner or occupant to comply with [the requirement to remove snow,] the owner and the occupant shall be liable to all persons injured or whose property is damaged directly or indirectly thereby and shall be liable to the Village of Hempstead . . .”
The Town of Oyster Bay's Code specifically provides that:
Each owner and occupant of any house or other building . . . in the Town shall keep the sidewalk in front of the lot or house or building free from obstruction by snow or ice and icy conditions . . . Snow and ice shall be removed within six hours after snow has ceased to fall . . . Such owner or occupant . . . shall be liable for any injury or damage by reason of omission, failure or negligence to make, maintain or repair such sidewalk or for a violation or nonobservance of the ordinances relating to making, maintaining and repairing sidewalks . . .
Accordingly, if you live in a town or village with ordinances that specifically impose liability, you have a duty to keep the sidewalk abutting your property in reasonably safe condition. This means not only clearing the sidewalk of snow and ice, but also applying salt or sand.
If you do not live in a town or village with such ordinances, you might not be found liable for a slip and fall, but it does not mean a plaintiff’s attorney will not try to blame you for the incident. In any event, you will likely still shovel your sidewalk in an effort to be a good neighbor. Who likes that one neighbor on the block who doesn’t shovel anyway?
You should thoroughly read your local village or town code (most are available online) for more answers.