Should I Shovel? Slippery Sidewalks and the Law
(“Common Laws” is a general legal information column written by two local attorneys, Lyn and David Batty. A prior version of this column originally appeared on DavidsonNews.net.)
While we were getting our coffee at Summit this other morning, one of our readers asked: “Who is responsible for keeping sidewalks free and clear of ice and snow?” That question is best answered by figuring out who is liable if a person slips and falls on a snow-covered sidewalk. After all, the threat of a lawsuit is a great way to motivate someone to get up off the couch and clear the walk.
You might be surprised to learn that in North Carolina, pedestrians are primarily responsible for avoiding the risk of slipping on a snow or ice covered public sidewalk. In other words, if you fall on an obviously slippery sidewalk, the law seems to say you have no one to blame but yourself for not finding a safer place to walk. Why?
As a general rule in North Carolina, local governments are responsible for maintaining all pedestrian facilities, so if there is a dangerous condition that exists on a public sidewalk for an extended period of time and a municipality is aware of the danger, they could be held responsible for an injury.
Ordinarily, this pertains to sidewalks that have significant unevenness or some other dangerous condition that has been neglected for some time, or was caused by errors in the construction of the sidewalk. The temporary nature of ice and snow caused by a winter storm is a different type of problem.
As a rule, a municipality is not liable for injuries caused by the formation of ice and snow from natural causes where the sidewalk itself is properly constructed, as long as (1) there are no dangerous slopes or ridges on the sidewalk and (2) the ice or snow has not been permitted to remain on the sidewalk for so long that it has become so rough and uneven that it is difficult or dangerous for persons to pass over it. This general rule potentially places some responsibility on a municipality to make sure that unusual accumulations of snow and ice aren’t a lingering danger to pedestrians, but doesn’t obligate towns to clear ice or snow that melts quickly.
In colder places where there is a lot of snow and ice, municipalities often pass ordinances that put the responsibility on the property owner adjacent to the sidewalk to shovel and clear that sidewalk. In North Carolina, such ordinances aren’t common, but they do exist.
For example, Asheville’s ordinance says a person whose property abuts a paved sidewalk should clear ice from the sidewalk before 10 a.m. each day when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees. Also, a property owner in Asheville is required to remove snow and sleet from a paved sidewalk within 48 hours after the snow or sleet stops falling, regardless of temperature. Asheville’s ordinance clarifies who is responsible for clearing ice and snow and lets property owners know that they may be fined if they don’t comply.
Davidson and Cornelius, like most other municipalities in North Carolina, don’t have ordinances requiring property owners to clear sidewalks of snow and ice.
Without an ordinance to clarify who must clear the sidewalk and when, we have to refer to the general rules of negligence in slip and fall cases that have been decided by North Carolina courts.
North Carolina negligence law places much of the burden on pedestrians to be aware of dangers that are obvious and apparent and to avoid them. Therefore “[a] landowner is under no duty to protect a visitor against dangers either known or so obvious and apparent that they reasonably may be expected to be discovered.” This type of analysis has been used to prevent a plaintiff from recovering for slip and fall injuries in a parking lot when the plaintiff admitted that they saw ice and snow in the parking lot and knew it was dangerous to walk across it.
The problem of snow and ice-covered sidewalks may be best answered by consulting with Mr. Rogers, rather than a lawyer. Mr. Rogers would remind us that the neighborly thing to do is to clear the sidewalk in front of your home or business so your neighbors don’t get hurt. If you have elderly neighbors, clear their sidewalks, too, while you are at it.
Lyn Batty, a Charlotte native, practiced law in North Carolina for 15 years before transitioning to academic librarianship and teaching. Lyn and her husband David have lived in Davidson since 2009. Lyn previously co-authored the “Common Laws” legal column for DavidsonNews.net.