2014-01-24 / Columnists

Sullivan’s Court

Snowy Sidewalks and Lawsuits!
By Keith Sullivan

Q. I own a two family home and spend most of the winter in Florida. My tenant usually shovels the snow while I am away. This year he told me he will be travelling for much of the winter and likely will not be around. I am concerned about any liability I may have if no one shovels the snow off the sidewalk. After all, it is the City’s sidewalk and not mine. Do I have reason for concern? - Tom O.

A. Tom, while you are enjoying the Florida sun, be sure someone has a shovel ready for your sidewalk! Thousands of people are injured each year in slip, trips and falls on sidewalks. The injuries sustained from having your body unexpectedly and violently thrust to the ground or your feet literally swept out from underneath you, can be devastating. Injuries caused by such accidents range from simple bruises and sprains to life altering orthopedic injuries and sometimes death and brain damage.

Pursuant to the law, sidewalks must be kept in proper repair, free of defects and trip and fall hazards. The NYC Code requires that snow on a sidewalk be removed by the adjoining landowner (that is you Tom!) within 4 hours after the snowfall stops. If the snow stops after 9:00 p.m., you have until 11:00 a.m. the next day to remove the snow. NYC Code also provides that if the snow has turned to ice and needs time to thaw, you may place “ash, clean unused cat litter, salt, sand, sawdust or another similarly suitable material” within the same time limits until it melts enough where removal of the ice is capable. Failing to clean your snowy sidewalk could result in fines between $100 and $350. The code also applies to the removal of ice, dirt and any other material on the sidewalk.

If someone gets hurt on your property from your failure to remove the snow, you can be sued. Even if you shovel the snow but in so doing create a tripping hazard, you can also be sued if someone is injured because of your sloppy shoveling job. Many people do a very poor job of shoveling and end up creating an invisible ice slick on the sidewalk in place of the once visible snow, or pile the snow against the house or building so that when it melts it runs onto the sidewalk and freezes or they create snow banks that later collapse back onto the sidewalk and become a tripping hazard. Avoid liability, shovel promptly and efficiently.

Moving beyond the responsibility of a property owner to remove snow from the adjacent sidewalk, you can also be sued if someone is injured due to some other “defect” in the sidewalk that you failed to repair. Yes, in certain circumstances the adjacent property owner must repair defects in the City’s sidewalks! This wasn’t always the case though. In 2003, thanks to “Tort Reform”, NYC was able to shift the responsibility of cleaning and maintaining sidewalks from themselves to the adjoining landowners. The law imposes upon the owners of property abutting the sidewalk the affirmative duty to maintain the sidewalk free from defects -including removal of snow and ice- and makes the owner liable for injuries arising out of the failure to do so.

Defects are considered any trip hazards such as cracks, raised uneven slabs, slopes, trees uprooting portions of the sidewalk, loosening patchwork work, protruding objects and any other condition that would disrupt normal ordinary walking. Exempt from the duty to repair sidewalks are owners of one, two and three-family residential homes that are in whole or in part, owner occupied and used exclusively for residential purposes. However, no property owner is exempt from the snow, ice and dirt removal requirement.

Sidewalk safety is important to keep slip and fall accidents from happening and ultimately, avoiding others from getting injured on your property.

Keith Sullivan is a partner with Sullivan & Galleshaw, LLP, an adjunct professor at several law schools, a Deputy Commissioner with the NYS Boxing Commission and a lecturer for the NYS bar exam. He can be seen frequently providing legal analysis on various national and local networks such as FOX News, CNN, HLN, NBC and MSNBC.

You can email your questions for Keith to SullivansCourt@gmail.com.

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