November 25, 2016
Winter is upon us in Central New York, complicating our morning commutes and creating more work for us each morning as we clean off our cars and shovel our driveways. Recently, in the City of Syracuse, clearing snow from sidewalks has become a hot button issue as the Common Council contemplated whether to impose fines on landowners who fail to shovel their walks. Syracuse city counsilors recently decided not to impose fines on residents who do not clear their sidewalks, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the issue will not come up again. So, what is your obligation as a homeowner to keep a public sidewalk that abuts your property free from snow and ice?
Generally, under New York common law, a landowner does not have a duty to maintain a public sidewalk and will not be liable for any defects or conditions thereon. There are exceptions to this rule, however, and an abutting landowner may be liable for sidewalk conditions where the landowner caused or created a dangerous condition or defect on the sidewalk, made special use of the sidewalk, or violated a specific ordinance that created a duty on the part of a landowner to maintain the sidewalk. As a homeowner, your first inquiry should be whether your local government has enacted any ordinances that create a duty on behalf of the landowner to maintain public sidewalks.
In New York, many local governments have altered this general rule by enacting ordinances that impose a duty on the landowner to keep his or her sidewalk clear of snow and may even explicitly shift liability to the landowner for defects or dangerous conditions. Many local code provisions go so far as to provide for certain time periods in which a landowner must clear snow. For example, in certain areas of Syracuse, the City of Syracuse Code requires landowners to clear snow and ice along abutting sidewalks within 4 hours after the cessation of snowfall. This requirement is subject to certain limitations, including an exception for Sundays. The City of New York has similar ordinances and goes so far as to fine residents who do not fulfill these statutory obligations.
In any case, as a landowner in Central New York whose property abuts a public sidewalk, your first step is to consult your local ordinances related to snow removal. If your local government requires an adjacent landowner to remove snow, you should follow whatever rules are established. If the statute goes further to explicitly shift liability to the landowner, you should be aware of the risk of a potential lawsuit if a pedestrian is injured on the abutting sidewalk. If a pedestrian does slip and fall on a public sidewalk abutting your property, follow the steps I have outlined here: Someone Was Injured on My Property . . . Now What Do I Do?
The legal standard in New York is that property owners must keep their property, including public sidewalks for which a statutory duty is imposed, in a “reasonably safe” condition. What constitutes a “reasonably safe” condition will be fact driven and vary under different circumstances, but you are well-advised to regularly clear your sidewalk within a reasonable time after the snow has fallen and also lay down some kind of ice melt. If you do shovel the abutting sidewalk and there is no local ordinance requiring you to do so, make sure that you do so carefully and leave it in a reasonably safe condition. A court may find that by your efforts you assumed a duty to clear your sidewalk when an independent duty to do so does not exist. In which case, you must be sure to meet the “reasonably safe” legal standard. Take caution to avoid creating a more dangerous condition by shoveling, like leaving mounds of snow or ice behind for pedestrians. If you have cleared your abutting sidewalk and a pedestrian attempts to pass, you may be exposed to liability if you created a more dangerous condition through your efforts. As always, if you have any questions about what your particular obligations may be, it is always best to consult an attorney.