Basic snow and ice law

First Posted: 2/6/2015

Winter is full of adverse weather. This time of year, it is reasonable to expect ice, snow and cold temperatures. Some folks shovel their driveways and sidewalks or hire entrepreneurial kids in the neighborhood to do it for them. I have many clients whose businesses plow driveways and parking lots professionally.

Of course, whenever snow and ice accumulate, removal is in order. Depending upon the roadway adjacent to your location, the state, a municipality (city or village) or township may be responsible for snow removal on that roadway. The act of salting roadways and removing snow from the surfaces of roadways is considered a “government function.”

Under the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” governments are not liable for mistakes or shoddy work undertaken or omitted in relation to government functions. Therefore, if a roadway is not plowed, a roadway is plowed poorly or if inadequate salt/sand is applied, the government generally bears no responsibilities for any accidents resulting from that untimely plowing or salting.

However, there are situations where government can be liable for damages while undertaking government functions, such as snow and ice removal. The standard to be satisfied before recovering for damages resulting from a poorly salted or plowed road is “unreasonableness.”

If the government unit conducting the work was “unreasonable” in doing or omitting some governmental function and that work/omission actually injured a person, that government agency may face some liability. This standard is very protective of the government and is only seldom effectively used.

Damaged and dislodged mailboxes are a frequent complaint from government snowplows, particularly when dealing with heavy (usually wetter) snow. Governments are required to be reasonable in carrying out their government functions, which means that there is sometimes a responsibility to either refurbish mailboxes damaged by a snowplow or secure a replacement mailbox, depending upon the circumstance.

Remarkably, home and business owners are not required to remove any “natural accumulations” of snow and ice from their own properties because snow and ice (particularly in our part of Ohio) is considered a foreseeable and clear and obvious danger to everyone. This law applies to both businesses and homes, even when uninvited strangers arrive or leave on sidewalks and on driveways. The removal of some snow while leaving ice underneath the remaining snow also does not increase the homeowner/business owner’s liability because only naturally accumulating snow and ice would remain, and its removal is not required.

As usual, there are a few exceptions. Most municipalities will require homeowners and businesses to remove snow from the sidewalks on their properties within a certain window of time, usually defined as reasonable or 12 to 18 hours. Specifically, homeowners and businesses must remove snow and ice near their respective mailboxes to accommodate mail delivery.

And, if a home or business owner actually does remove the snow and ice and relocates it to a place or pile where others can be hurt, and someone is actually hurt from the newly piled snow, the homeowner/business owner may face liability.