Snow and Ice Removal
Even though it hasn't really snowed in two years and is 110 degrees outside, it is never too early to start thinking about removing snow and ice from your home and business. When I practiced law, it was fairly common to have several icy slip and fall claims made during the winter months. They all follow a similar pattern: a patron arrives at a business, slips on snow or ice, and sues the business alleging that the business failed to meet its duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition. In Chittenden v. BRE/LQ Properties, Tennessee's appellate court reminds business owners of what is and isn't expected of a business during an ice or snow event.
Tennessee requires business owners to use reasonable care to protect persons on its property from unreasonable risks of harm, to include maintaining the premises in a reasonably safe condition either by removing or repairing potentially dangerous conditions or by helping persons avoid injury by warning them of conditions that cannot, as a practical matter, be removed or repaired. More specifically as to snow and ice, a property owner is not required to keep premises free from accumulation at all times, but they are expected to take reasonable steps to remove snow and ice within a reasonable time after it has formed or accumulated.
While there is no bright line rule as to exactly what must be done and when it should occur, the court does mention several times in the opinion that the storm was ongoing during this particular fall and it is reasonable to begin efforts to remove accumulated snow and generally survey the property for dangers after the snow has subsided. In other words, one is not required to be actively removing snow while it is still snowing and icing.
The court also gives a nod to the open and obvious defense to a slip and fall case. The court explained that the openness and obviousness of a particular danger should be considered when evaluating a property owner's duty to warn of a danger condition. A wet floor sign helps warn against clear liquid. A parking lot covered in snow may not need a sign.
What exactly must you do when it stops snowing? How long do you have before you need to clear the parking lot? What about black ice but no snow? The court gives no guidance other than to act reasonably.
Note that just because you spread salt and shovel snow, you may still be sued if someone slips in your parking lot or on your sidewalk. But you can point to your reasonable actions in responding to the dangerous condition.
A few takeaways: Who is responsible if someone slips on your property? You or your landlord? You need to check your lease. Would your property insurance or general liability insurance cover a slip and fall? It is your general liability. Lastly, have a snow and ice removal procedure in place. Don't make it too complicated. If you are sued, it is helpful to be able to show that you anticipated a risk, had a plan for the risk, and (hopefully) executed the plan.
LEGAL JARGON DISCLAIMER: The foregoing is not legal advice. Even if you construe it that way, it’s probably only worth what you paid for it. I am an attorney but am not yours.
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