Snowmageddon is upon us, which means school closures, sledding with your children, and unfortunately shoving snow off your property.
As a homeowner, you're responsible for keeping your home safe. If your friend stops over to visit, and falls down your attic stairs because you have a loose floorboard, you're legally responsible for his injuries. In the law, we call this premises liability—you're responsible for keeping your premises safe and free from obvious dangers.
But what happens if your neighbor slips and falls on a snowy or icy sidewalk right outside your house. Are you at fault? In other words, as the homeowner, are you legally responsible for removing snow and ice from the sidewalk right next to your house?
In many cities in Washington, yes you are. In Seattle, for example, homeowners must remove snow and ice on sidewalk adjacent to their property “in a timely manner” to prevent the sidewalk from becoming “potentially hazardous.” (Seattle Municipal Code 15.48.010). Other cities are even more specific. In Everett, a homeowner must clear every adjacent public sidewalk by 12:00 pm. (Everett Municipal Code 13.08).
Sounds simple, right? But is this reasonable? Surely you're not expected to stand outside with your trusty snow shovel during a howling snow storm frantically shoveling snow off your sidewalk. Or racing home by 11:59 am in Everett to meet the snow removal deadline.
You're not going to jail, of course, for not shoveling snow. At worst, you'll pay a fine. But this doesn't answer the larger, far more important question. Are you at fault if someone gets injured?
In 2001, the Washington Supreme Court told homeowners what they need to do. During a heavy snowstorm, a landowner has to take “corrective action” within a “reasonable time” to make his or her property (including adjacent sidewalks) safe from heavy snowfall or a winter storm. Of course, if you flew to Hawaii to escape the winter wonderland, then you're in trouble, right? No. The key factor is whether a homeowner had “actual knowledge that accumulations of snow and ice has persisted.”
This past week, it's pretty safe to assume that everyone in the Puget Sound area has actual knowledge of snow storm.
So unless you've been channeling your inner Sandra Bullock from Netflix's hit Bird Box movie for the past two weeks, you're probably skating on legal thin ice for not removing snow and ice from your sidewalks (no pun intended).
Enjoy the snow, and happy shoveling.