After a recent snowstorm, a family member of mine asked me whether he had an obligation to remove ice and snow from the sidewalk in front of his house. It was his belief that he had no such obligation and that by attempting to remove the ice and snow, he would somehow be “opening himself” up to liability in the event he did it improperly. Accordingly, I decided to write this blog with respect to snow removal obligations concerning sidewalks in the State of New Jersey.
Since 1981, the obligation of a landowner to remove ice or snow from a public sidewalk differs between commercial landowners and residential landowners. Commercial landowners, which are typically businesses and for profit organizations, have a duty to properly remove ice and snow from public walkways and sidewalks around their buildings in a reasonably timely manner after a snowfall. Further, they have an ongoing and continuing obligation to make sure that those sidewalks and walkways are kept clear from hazards such as ice by continuing to salt and/or sand the area as needed. A commercial landowner which fails to fulfill this duty will be responsible for injuries sustained by any individuals who slip and fall on their property.
The duty of a residential landowner is completely different. From a “liability” perspective, a residential landowner has no duty to remove ice or snow from the public sidewalk next to its property. That is, if an individual slips and falls as a result of an accumulation of ice or snow on a public sidewalk next to a residential property, that injured individual cannot obtain monetary damages from the homeowner for negligence. However, does this analysis change if the property owner attempts to remove the ice or snow but does so in an improper or negligent manner? The answer to this question is: “it depends.” A recent New Jersey Supreme Court case held that the landowner in this instance would not be responsible to an injured person unless the landowner’s attempt to remove the ice and snow formed a “new element of danger… other than one caused by natural forces.” Under this language, a subsequent melting and refreezing of that snow on the sidewalk would not constitute such a new hazard. The reasoning of the court in reaching these conclusions is to encourage homeowners to engage in the snow removal process for the safety of the public. Importantly, however, despite the fact that a homeowner may not be liable for damages suffered by someone who slips and falls on the public sidewalk in front of their house, they may be fined by their local municipality for failing to clear ice and snow in conformance with local ordinances. Accordingly, in order to avoid a potential fine from your local town, it is suggested that all attempts be made to remove the ice and snow from the public sidewalk in front of your house. As indicated above, doing so does not necessarily increase any liability you may have to a passerby who falls.
Despite my analysis above, there are numerous questions and issues that are still not answered. If a homeowner is not responsible for injuries to one who slips and falls on the public sidewalk, who is? Is a multi-unit apartment building “residential” or “commercial?” Is a public sidewalk next to a residential condominium complex “residential” or “commercial?” Is a common sidewalk with in a residential condominium complex “residential” or “commercial?” The answers to these questions require significantly more legal analysis than can be provided in this article. As such, in the event you or a family member are injured as a result of a slip and fall on ice or snow, you should immediately seek the advice of an attorney to determine who may have responsibility for your injuries. If you or a family member have any questions concerning any issues raised in this article, please do not hesitate to contact my office.