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Shovel On: Clearing Sidewalks Doesn't Increase Liability In 'Slip and Fall' Cases, Say Attorneys

unshoveled walk
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon

Despite a persistent myth that seems to surface every time it snows, homeowners don’t increase their liability in "slip and fall" cases because they cleared the snow and ice from their sidewalks, say local attorneys.

Snow and ice are considered a normal hazard of living -- and clearing off your sidewalk is the right thing to do, said Stephen Ringkamp of the Hullverson Law Firm.

“We have to take care of our brothers and sisters out there,’’ he said. “You don’t want people to get hurt. If you have the wherewithal to shovel your snow off a public sidewalk or off the steps, you don’t want people to get hurt. Do your best, and if you’ve done your best, the law’s not going to hold it against you.’’

An exception might be if the property owner created a hazard or did something negligent during snow removal, he said.

“For instance if they shoveled the snow and sprayed it with water or dumped water to create ice,’’ he said. “If they create a hazard that doesn’t ordinarily exist by virtue of snow and ice, then they can have some liability.’’

Though the legend appears to be fueled by worries over frivolous lawsuits, Ringkamp noted that few lawsuits are filed over sidewalks in front of someone’s home.

“It’s different if you’ve got a mall or business where they have snow removal services,’’ he said. “Melt and refreeze is something business owners should know is going to happen. So you throw some salt down. Solves the problem. If you don’t throw the salt down, you’re going to be responsible, and you should be because you’re trying to get people into your place of business. That’s called 'invitee' law. Somebody who’s walking down a sidewalk, they’re not your invitee.”

A blog by Robert J. Albair, a St. Louis personal injury attorney, points out that most municipalities require homeowners to clear their sidewalks after a storm ends. In general, homeowners are not liable for “recent accumulations of snow and ice,” so you aren’t required to shovel during a storm. But you have a duty to do so after the storm and before your sidewalk becomes “unreasonably” dangerous.

For example, here’s the statute for the city of St. Louis:

“After any fall of snow, owners, managers, agents or occupiers of any premises shall cause the snow to be immediately removed from the improved area of the sidewalk in the public street adjacent to such premises, and the improved area of the sidewalk shall also be kept clear of ice at all times. If no part of the sidewalk area be improved, then a lane five feet wide in the sidewalk area shall be kept free from snow and ice at all times. Where structures contain six or more units, it shall be the duty of the owner or agent of the owner to comply with this provision. Where structures contain between one or six units, it shall be the duty of the person occupying the units nearest the public street, as well as the owner or agent of the owner, involved to comply with the requirements of this section.
(Ord. 56726 § 1 (part), 1974: 1960 C. § 805.210.)”

Similar ordinances exist throughout the metro area. In Kirkwood, a “friendly reminder” currently on the website reminds residents of the city's ordinance that calls for the removal of snow by owner or occupant within 24 hours of accumulation "from sidewalks that front or are immediately adjacent to buildings, premises, or vacant lots." In Edwardsville, snow removal is also expected within 24 hours of a storm’s end.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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