There’s No Business Like Snow Business
The winter of 2009–2010 saw the Philadelphia metro area get record breaking snowfall. Many feet of snow piled on the sidewalks, driveways, stoops, and porches of property owners all across the area made for many hours of shoveling, salting, and sweeping to ensure safe and clear pathways on which to walk. Although the Philadelphia area may never get six-plus feet of snow in one winter in the lifetimes of the readers of this article again, the area will certainly receive snow in varying amounts each winter. Given this, it is important for property owners to know their responsibilities regarding the removal of snow from their property and what they need to do to avoid civil liability.
There are two basic ways a property owner can be liable for the snow on his property: the first is a violation of City ordinance and the second is in a tort action. Obviously, both could be present in a single matter; however a violation of the City ordinance does not necessarily guarantee tort liability for the property owner, nor does a violation of a City ordinance guarantee tort liability.
The requirements of the Philadelphia City Code are pretty straightforward regarding property owners’ responsibility for the snow on their property. According to Philadelphia Code §10-720, a property owner must shovel a thirty inch (30”) wide path on their sidewalks within six (6) hours after the cessation of snow fall. The ordinance requires that the thirty inch (30”) wide path be thoroughly cleared of snow and ice. “Where the width of any pavement measured from the property line to the curb is less than 3 (three) feet, the path cleared may be only 12 inches in width. When the building in question is a multifamily dwelling the owner or his agent shall be responsible for compliance with the requirements of this section.” (quoting the above citation). Of course, when shoveling the snow, one may not dump the snow into the street; so doing is also a violation of this ordinance. If the City successfully tickets a property owner for a violation of §10-720, the property owner is liable to be fined between $50 and $300 per violation.
Whether one violates a City ordinance does not necessarily have any bearing on whether a property owner could be liable in tort to an individual who is injured due to the accumulation of snow and ice on his property. Like many issues sounding in tort, the standards by which liability is measured are somewhat flexible and based on common law determinations of what is and is not reasonable. Tort liability for snow and ice accumulation on one’s property falls into the somewhat nebulous and imprecise “hills and ridges” standard. Essentially, Pennsylvania tort law requires the snow and/or ice on one’s property to be in the form of “hills and ridges” before a property owner can be liable for damages suffered by someone falling on the snow and/or ice on his property. The basic rationale for such a standard, as the logic goes, is that a reasonable property owner will shovel and clear out his sidewalks within a reasonable amount of time. Of course, unlike the Philadelphia City Code, no specific amount of time is specified by the “hills and ridges” standard, it simply requires the snow and ice to be cleared away within a reasonable time. Naturally, this begs the question of how one is to determine what a reasonable amount of time to shovel snow is; this is where the “hills and ridges” analysis is applied. If the snow on a property owner’s sidewalks has been there for such a long period of time that it has developed hills and ridges, then it has been there long enough for the property owner to be liable if someone is injured attempting to walk on the ridged ice and snow. If the snow is smooth and fresh looking, then it is presumed that the snow is relatively newly fallen and, therefore, it is not reasonable to expect it to have been shoveled so quickly for liability to attach to the property owner. Based on this, it is the best practice for an attorney litigating an injury on snow on someone’s property to investigate the appearance of the snow and ice on which the injured person fell.
Clearly, then, while the standards for tort liability and a violation of the City ordinance certainly overlap, they are not exactly the same. Snow can certainly last more than six (6) hours after a snowfall and remain in smooth pristine condition. In other words, one could be in violation of the City ordinance for failing to shovel snow on one’s sidewalk, but not necessarily be liable for damages in tort if someone fell on that very same snow. That is primarily due to the fact that the City ordinance and the action in tort each exist for a slightly different purpose. The liability in a tort action is to ensure people take reasonable care of their property. Not every municipality has the same standards as Philadelphia, or even has standards at all, regarding when snow ought to be shoveled. The City ordinance is for the purpose of ensuring uniformity and safety on the City’s sidewalks, and perhaps for relieving the City of the responsibility of clearing them itself.
Although the winter of 2009–2010 has likely seen the last of the snow, when it returns in the future, it is important to ensure compliance with City ordinances and shoveling it within a reasonable time. Otherwise, it will be over the hills and ridges and through the woods to liability they go for property owners!