Dear PoP – Who is Responsible for Shoveling?

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“Dear PoP,

A DC law question for you and your readers: Who the heck is liable for those icy sidewalks?? On December 23rd, two days after your “Sidewalks of Shame” post, I slipped on some ice on the sidewalk directly in front of my apartment building and broke my ankle. Bummer, but extra bummer because I am a waitress and now cannot work for 2 months. I tried to do some research on local liability laws and have ended up more confused than enlightened…

It shall be the duty of every person, partnership, corporation, joint-stock company, or syndicate in charge or control of any building or lot of land within the fire limits of the District of Columbia, fronting or abutting on a paved sidewalk, whether as owner, tenant, occupant, lessee, or otherwise, within the first 8 hours of daylight after the ceasing to fall of any snow or sleet, to remove and clear away, or cause to be removed and cleared away, such snow or sleet from so much of said sidewalk as is in front of or abuts on said building or lot of land.

As a “lessee” mentioned above, does this mean I am responsible for clearing my sidewalks? Or as I am not the “person…in charge or control” of my apartment building, does this mean my landlord will be paying my rent soon?”

Ed. Note: the comments that follow should not be considered legal advice. My guess is that if you live in an apartment building then they are responsible for shoveling. You need to check your lease right away to see what it says. What do you guys think?

21 Comment

  • Kalorini

    I think this is appropriate for your “Legal Question of the Week” Feature.

    Sorry about the broken ankle–ouch! :-(

  • I am amazed that Mary Cheh is pushing for tougher penalties on folks who don’t shovel their walks, when it seems many of the District-owned properties in my neighborhood remained completely UNcleared for the entirety of the recent snow event! Will they penalize themselves too?

  • District law requires property owners to clear snow and ice from sidewalks, handicap ramps and steps abutting their property within the first eight daylight hours after the snow, sleet or ice stops falling. This applies to all property owners – residential, commercial, federal, and municipal. If ice cannot be cleared without damaging the sidewalk, then property owners may spread sand or salt to make the sidewalks safe. Property owners also must clear snow from the ADA-curb cuts; these are part of the sidewalk. Property owners are asked to clear snow from catch basins and storm drains to prevent flooding during snow melt.

    http://ddot.dc.gov/ddot/frames.asp?doc=/ddot/lib/ddot/services/snow/snow_brochure.pdf

    Of course as DC Res has pointed out, one of the worst violators the District Gov’t (and the Federales for that matter too).

  • As I read it, it is the duty of the person “in charge or control” of any building to shovel the walk. It’s unlikely that an individual tenant of an apartment would be found to control the entire building. The “lessee” language likely anticipates a business that leases commercial space.

    But check the lease to see what it says. Frankly, if the writer intends to hold someone liable for the damages, the harder problem would be establishing exactly where she fell. Unless someone saw her or she took pictures right at the time, there could be a problem there.

  • I’m not 100% sure, but common sense would dictate the building’s management company is responsible. As anon pointed out, allowing for the lesee to be responsible is probably for commercial properties or residential properties where there’s only 1 unit (as an example, I rent a rowhouse and the owners live in MD; it would be silly for them to have to come out to shovel so we do it).

    • GiantSquid

      In theory, your landlords should have a snow removal solution established. Either they come up and take care of it, they hire another person/company to come by and clean it off, or they work something out with you to get it cleared. I’m in the same boat where we rent a rowhouse and the landlords are at least an hour away in MD, but in the case of this last snowstorm, I have to make it out my front door, therefore, I’ll be cleaning up the snow sooner rather than later. Plus, we didn’t even know about the snow removal laws but as we have two dogs and use the sidewalks, it seemed common courtesy to clean out the space in front of our house (and we even did a little of our neighbors’ since they weren’t home.) But then again, we’re from Upstate New York and I’m more than happy to clean off our stairs and twenty feet of sidewalk rather than my parents’ driveway.

      Every place I’ve rented has had a snow removal solution that didn’t involve the tenant(s).

  • I wonder if she sues her apartment building and they defend by claiming her actions somehow contributed to her injuries (contributory negligence). Hope she wasn’t drunk!

  • That would probably work for an apartment. For those of you that rent a whole house, its highly likely that written into your lease was a provision that you are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk.

  • I agree that in a multi-tenant building the owner or building manager is likely responsible, and that should be in the lease. I know when I lived in a group house in Takoma Park, Maryland, the lease stated we were responsible for land upkeep and sidewalk clearing, because we were renting the whole building.

    The real problem with snow in DC is that too much of the city has the “God put it there, let God take it away” mentality with regards to snow removal. For a standard DC snowstorm of a couple inches that works fine, but it’s a nightmare when you get 1 1/2 – 2 feet of snow and it is cold for days afterwards.

    I know of no instances, though, when anyone has been cited for not clearing snow. Of course, as DC Res notes, the city and other governmental agencies are by far the worst offenders. I live at Sherman Circle, where the circle itself is the responsibility of the US Park System and it has NEVER been shoveled in any snowstorm in the nearly 7 years I have lived there.

  • It’s a different question as to (1) who is responsible for shoveling a sidewalk, and (2) who is liable if someone slips on said unshoveled sidewalk. (I note that your question was very specific as to “who is liable,” therefore I am guessing that you’ve already reached many of the following conclusions). While you may think that the two should go hand in hand, they don’t. Cutting to the chase, failure to shovel the sidewalk does not make one liable to those who slip on that sidewalk. The simple answer for this is that it is pretty obvious that the sidewalk is not shoveled, therefore you are sort of “on notice” that you could slip and fall. Additionally, property owners don’t own the sidewalk (in DC, many don’t even own their front yards!), therefore propery owners don’t owe any legal duty to someone using that sidewalk (the duty to shovel–if you want to call it that, because it is not technically a “legal duty” at all–is not owed to the world at large, but to the city).

    I say all of this not to be mean, but just because you shouldn’t have an unrealistic expectation that your claim is going to succeed. You very well may be able to get a settlement out of someone (it may be cheaper to give you a few hundred dollars than to give a defense lawyer a few thousand), but I would suggest taking no more time off than you absolutely must. I broke my foot once when I was waiting tables, and my boss was nice enough to put me behind the bar during the day and on some slow weeknights, but after about two weeks I was out hobbling around from table to table again. YMMV, but I’d suggest doing what you have to do to get back out there, because its unlikely someone else is going to be paying your rent while you recover.

    • You are correct that the responsibility for shoveling a sidewalk and the liability for an injury that results from an unshoveled sidewalk may not go hand-in-hand. But legal action against a party that does not shovel a sidewalk may be more successful than you predict. Violation of a code or regulation is typically per se evidence of negligence. The duty to shovel a sidewalk is not only owed to the City, it is in fact owed to the world at large because the City requires people to shovel sidewalks in front of their property to facilitate the safe passage of people on those sidewalks. It is true that if you see a sidewalk covered in snow or ice, you are on notice of the potential danger of walking on that sidewalk and there may be some degree of negligence on your part if you chose to walk on the sidewalk and get injured. But that doesn’t mean you will not recover anything in a lawsuit. It only means that if you sue the party that failed to clear the sidewalk, the amount of your recovery would be offset by the degree to which your own negligence contributed to your injuries. Negligence is about whether people behaved reasonably. An 80 year old homeowner who is sued for an injury caused by someone slipping and falling on ice in front of her home might not be found to have been negligent at all because it’s not reasonable to expect an 80 year old to break ice in front of her home. A 22 year old who knowingly walks on a sheet of ice and gets injured because of it may not have been negligent if the ice was covering the only possible route to get where the person had to go.
      I don’t mean to suggest that a suit would be a worthwhile exercise of anyone’s time or money. But it’s not necessarily a loser.

    • Whether you own the sidewalk in front of your house or not, the City has imposed a legal duty on you as a homeowner to shovel snow under particular circumstances. The duty is in fact owed to the world at large because the reason the City wants sidewalks shoveled is to facilitate the safe passage of residents on the streets. Violation of a legal duty is usually at least prima facie evidence of negligence. In some cases it is per se negligence.
      I am not saying that a lawsuit (assuming you find someone to take it) would be a winner. I just don’t think it’s a clear loser.

    • ah

      The DC Court of Appeals has resolved this question in Murphy v Schwankhaus (2007). It said that the shoveling statute did not create a duty to shovel such that one could be liable for failing to do so, and that there was no common law obligation to shovel. (There is a duty not to make it *more* hazardous, but I’m not sure how that would work: using hot water to melt the snow, but stopping when it gets icier perhaps)?

  • We slipped (sorry, no pun intended) out of town about 8 hours before the big snowfall the week prior to Christmas. Since we were gone for two weeks, our snow clearing dilemma resolved itself (i.e., the snow melted by the time we came home).

    However, if I was to have been a good citizen, should I have been checking the DC weather to ascertain the snowfall amount, and then try, somehow, to get someone to come shovel my sidewalk?

    What if I were out of town for a month, and had no idea it even snowed?

    (Just wondering aloud here)

    • How is ignorance of the law an excuse? I think you know the answer here is to strike a deal with your neighbors to cover each other in case. Which is what I have with my neighbors across the street.

    • Yeah, um, the dilemma didn’t resolve itself for everyone who had to walk on your sidewalk while you were out of town. You should have had a neighbor or someone come shovel for you.

    • If you owned a property but did not live there at all, e.g. you rented it, would you still not be sure how to answer this question?

      Yes – you are responsible. Phone a friend or pay someone to do it. It’s no different than any other responsibility you have as a property owner, like keeping your grass mowed.

      The fact that you are not there doesn’t remove your obligation to maintain your property.

  • This didn’t happen in DC, but… A colleague of mine slipped on her apartment building’s icy sidewalk and broke her wrist. Our employer wrote a letter stating the amount of her lost wages (she was hourly) for the period she was unable to work. My colleague attached the hospital bill and a summary and request letter. The management company cut her a check without a peep.

    So there’s a happy(ish) ending for you.

  • WDC:
    excellent answer and a good illustration of the kind of approach that is most likely to succeed: that is, a formal letter written by an employer, plus an itemized account of the loss/damages, and an attached hospital bill. i would think this would be much more effective than the injured party’s whine over the telephone or irascible email.

    my landlord very graciously said she would “make it up to me” when i paid an out-of-work neighbor to shovel the driveway of the house in which i rent a room. we’ll see whether she makes good, but it’s her responsibility, not mine.

    even so, i live here, and i don’t like seeing an unshoveled walk waiting for good old mr. sunshine to come back and clear it. mr. sunshine, btw, is by far the most reliable and effective civic snow remover in these parts, aside from the wonderful folks with snowplows who clear the walks and parking areas in georgetown condos.

  • each owner of a property is responsible for the sidewalk in front of their property…so that all can pass safely.

  • It sounds like the most effective course of action may be to wait until you are healed, buy a snow shovel, find the person responsible for the sidewalk not being shoveled, and beat them over the head repeatedly. It would be a valuable lesson!

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