By Cory Bilton
The flakes began falling last night before we had left the office. All evening and through most of the night, snow fell across DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Today, we are all enduring an uncomfortable mix of frigid temperatures, strong winds, and snow and ice accumulations. Since I have safely made it to the office today, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about the snow clearing laws in the area.
DC law requires any person in control of a building to clear snow from the sidewalk around the building within 8 hours from daylight after the snow stops falling. DC Code § 9-601. Even though the language of this statute seems to impose a clear duty on landowners in DC, this law does not say that failing to clear the sidewalk makes the landowner liable to someone injured on the icy sidewalk. So when a building owner or manager fails to clear the sidewalk, only the DC government can do anything about it. The DC government has the duty to clear the sidewalks and then stick the building owner with the bill. See DC Code §§ 9-605 and 9-606.
Regarding people injured from a slip and fall in icy conditions, DC courts have held on a number of occasions that no one has a duty to keep the “front of one’s premises free from ice and snow.” Therefore, landlords need not fear lawsuits from natural snow and ice accumulations on the sidewalks. However, it may be a problem if the landlord does something to make conditions more dangerous. While the DC Court of Appeals has not formally permitted this “increased danger” argument to be an exception to the rule, it certainly seems receptive to hearing the argument. See Murphy v. Schwankhaus, 924 A.2d 988 (DC 2007).
Virginia has no commonwealth-wide law about snow removal. Individual counties or cities may pass their own ordinances about snow removal. In Arlington, any person in charge of a building that is next to a public sidewalk is required to clear the snow from the sidewalk. If the accumulation is 6 inches or less, the person in charge has 24 hours to clear the sidewalk from when the snow stops falling. If the snow accumulation is more than 6 inches, the person has 36 hours to clear it. See Arlington County Code § 27-24. Interestingly, it is a misdemeanor in Arlington to shovel snow from private property onto a public street or sidewalk. See Arlington County Code § 27-25. Fairfax County has no similar law requiring residents to clear public sidewalks.
For those who are injured on icy sidewalks in Virginia, there are some conditions which could make the landlord liable. The standard that the Supreme Court of Virginia has adopted for these situations is that snow and ice accumulations are treated the same as any other dangerous condition on someone’s property. “[I]t is the duty of the landlord to use reasonable care to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice from walkways for the common use of his tenants within a reasonable time after the storm ceases.” Langhorne Road Apartments v. Bisson, 207 Va. 474 (1966). So Virginia imposes more of a duty on landlords than DC does. In Virginia, landlords have to make some positive (if reasonable) effort to clear the sidewalks, even if there is no county ordinance requiring them to do so.
Like Virginia, Maryland has no state-wide law regarding snow removal. This probably makes sense for both states since parts of each state are fairly rural and other parts are urban. Montgomery County has a snow removal law that roughly mimics the other laws in the area: you must make a reasonable effort to clear the sidewalk within 24 hours of the end of the precipitation. Montgomery County Code § 49-24A. Prince George’s County has a similar removal statute, but it provides for a 48-hour window of time. Prince George’s County Code § 23-150.
Maryland law makes it very difficult for a person that is injured by slipping on snow or ice to hold the landowner liable for her injuries. Instead of focusing on the duty or reasonableness of the landowner, the Maryland Court of Appeals has instead focused on the injured person’s assumption of the risk of walking on snow and ice. As summarized in Poole v. Coakley, 423 Md. 91 (2011), “knowledge undoubtedly acquired from encountering visible snow and ice may be imputed as a matter of law.” When this knowledge is imputed to the plaintiff, the plaintiff is automatically held to have assumed the risk of potentially slipping and falling. If the risk from the snow or ice is unusual (as in, not immediately visible, e.g. black ice), then it is possible to successfully argue that the landowner is liable. See Poole v. Coakley. This is a fairly high bar for the injured victim.
As you can see, there are both similarities and differences in the duty to remove snow from the sidewalk in the DC Metro area. Most of the case law in this topic is pretty sparse and deals solely with situations where a person slips and falls on a sidewalk or parking lot that has snow or ice on it. For more unusual cases, such as snow falling off rooftops or firefighters slipping on driveways while responding to fires, local cases provide almost no guidance. But since we are a city of pedestrians and multi-mode commuters, everyone needs to add extra care to their trips on days like today.
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