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Shovel Your Sidewalk or Face Potential Liability

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By Andrew Lu on December 28, 2012 10:22 AM

We're just one week into winter, but if you live in a snowy area like the Midwest or the Northeast, you'd better break out your shovels and buy some salt. Because if you don't shovel your sidewalk, you could expose yourself to liability.

As snowstorms are expected to hit (or already have hit) parts of the United States, property owners may face legal obligations to keep their property clean, safe, and ice-free.

If you fail to shovel your sidewalk or other public walkway, and someone slips and falls, you could potentially face a lawsuit. In some states, you may have broken the law too.

In general, property owners are responsible for maintaining their property and removing any hazards under the legal theory of premises liability. This includes hazards outside the home like a broken swing set or a slippery private walkway. If you fail to keep your premises safe, your guests or invitees could potentially sue you for negligence.

The theory of premises liability can also extend to public areas outside of your home, including public sidewalks. So if a passerby walks in front of your home and slips and falls on an icy sidewalk, that individual may be able to sue you for injuries as well.

Some jurisdictions like New York and Massachusetts have also enacted laws that make the landowner responsible for keeping public sidewalks clear of ice and snow. Violating these laws usually leads to a fine. This can be on top of any monetary damages you would have to pay to settle a lawsuit.

So when it starts snowing, does this mean you have to sit outside and clear the snow as it falls? Well, you may want to check with a local attorney in your area to learn your obligations. Some jurisdictions say that a property owner can wait a "reasonable amount of time" before clearing the sidewalk. Other sidewalk shoveling laws are silent on the issue.

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