This time of year, nearly everyone is tired of snow. The idea of waking up early to clear off a sidewalk or a driveway sounds like torture to many property owners, which begs the question: Do you have a legal responsibility to clear snow from your sidewalk or driveway? Can you be sued if someone falls on your uncleared sidewalk? Can you sue a homeowner or business if you slip and fall on the snow? The answers depend on where you live.
Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. all have different rules regarding a property owners liability for clearing the sidewalks after a snow fall. In addition to county-specific ordinances, many individual cities have their own rules outlining a property owners legal liability.
State of Maryland
Maryland courts have found that homeowners have a legal responsibility to prevent hazardous conditions on their property. If a property owner knew, or should have known, that their walkway was dangerous, then that person had a duty to clear the sidewalks to prevent injury.
Different counties in Maryland put different requirements on property owners, depending on the type of property. Anne Arundel County and Montgomery County require property owners to remove snow accumulations within 24 hours of the end of the snowfall. In Prince Georges County, these same rules apply not only to property owners, but to renters as well.
In Washington D.C., the city’s ordinance states that homeowners and landlords are responsible for clearing snow or ice from their sidewalks and any adjacent areas within 8 hours after a snow storm. While property owners can be fined for failing to comply with these rules, they are relatively protected from lawsuits from people injured on sidewalks.
In 2004, a Washington woman named Starr Murphy slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk in front of the apartment building where she lived, breaking her leg. She sued her landlord, but lost in court. She appealed to the highest court in the city, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial courts decision, and confirmed that Ms. Starr had no right to sue based on the city ordinance which requires landlords to keep sidewalks clear.
The Court of Appeals said that at common law, there was no duty for a property owner to clear the sidewalks. This means that historically, property owners never had this obligation, so there was no duty to do so now. The fact that the city of Washington D.C. enacted an ordinance meant that only the city of D.C. had the right to enforce it, much like it enforces building codes and other regulations. The ordinance did NOT give ordinary citizens the right to file a lawsuit against the property owner.
The Court went on to say that a property owner could be sued if he or she did something to make the sidewalk more dangerous for example, if the property owner was draining or collecting water out onto the sidewalk, which then froze, he or she could be held responsible for any injuries which result from the collection of ice.
Commonwealth of Virginia
Virginia’s legal system largely follows the common law rules described for Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court of Virginia has held that a homeowner does not have a duty to remove snow or ice within a reasonable time after the end of a storm. Since the danger posed by snow and ice is obvious to the average passerby, homeowners cannot be held liable for failing to clear their sidewalks.
Despite this ruling, many counties in Virginia do have ordinances which require property owners to clear their sidewalks. These rules can vary widely. Fairfax County, Virginia does not require residential or business property owners to clear their sidewalks, while Arlington County mandates that property owners must clear the entire width of their sidewalks, up to 3 feet across, within 24 hours of a snowstorm.
Business/Commercial Snow Removal
The rules for slippery sidewalks, parking lots, or other walkways in front of businesses or commercial areas are different than those for residential neighborhoods. A business invites members of the public into its property, and has a responsibility to keep those invitees safe.
If you slip and fall in front of a business, it is often much easier to hold that company responsible for your injuries than it would be for a private individual. Additionally, in many areas, the local government is responsible for clearing sidewalks in front of municipal or state-owned buildings, like the post office or the courthouse.
If you fell or were injured on an icy or snow-covered sidewalk, there are often legal options available to you to get the compensation you need to recover from your injuries. An experienced personal injury attorney in Washington D.C., like the slip-and-fall lawyers at Goldberg Finnegan, can help you determine your options.