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Dealing with Snow and Ice on Streets and Sidewalks


October 28, 2019 by Paul Sullivan
Category: Snow and Ice Removal

Dealing with Snow and Ice on Streets and Sidewalks

Note: This blog post was first published in 2016 but has since been updated.

Winter is coming. Snow likely will be falling, and walking may become treacherous. What can or should a city or county do to deal with accumulations of snow and ice on sidewalks and streets?

Who’s Responsible for the Streets and Sidewalks?

Several court decisions have established that a public agency cannot be held liable for damage or injuries caused by snow and ice if it has not had a reasonable opportunity to clear the streets. Here are some questions related to municipal liability.

Is a municipality liable for a person’s snow-related injury if it did not remove snow and ice from sidewalks?

In most instances, no. The state Court of Appeals decision in Nelson v. Tacoma, 19 Wn. App. 807, 808 (1978), quotes the general rule from the legal treatise, McQuillin, Municipal Corporations:  

Ordinarily, snow or ice upon a sidewalk is not to be classed with dangerous obstructions such as a municipality is required to remove. It is generally held that a natural and ordinary accumulation of snow and ice on sidewalks creates no municipal liability for injuries occasioned thereby, unless with respect thereto the municipality is in some manner negligent by disregarding its obligation to exercise ordinary care to keep its sidewalks in fit condition for usual travel.    

Municipal liability may arise if the snowy or icy sidewalk itself was defective, or the ice or snow, formed into ridges, drifts or hillocks, amounted to a dangerous obstruction to travel, the element of knowledge being shown.  

One of the first cases in Washington to address the issue was Calder v. Walla Walla, 6 Wash. 377, 378 (1893), where the state Supreme Court stated:  

The city is not liable for accidents occasioned by mere slipperiness caused by ice upon the walk. If the ice is not so rough and uneven, or so rounded up, or at such an incline as to make it an obstruction, and to cause it to be unsafe for travel with the exercise of due care, there is no liability.  

There has been one case in which a city was held liable for a pedestrian injuring himself when he slipped and fell on a sidewalk upon which a mound of ice had formed over a period of days (such that the city was chargeable with notice of the condition) — See Holland v. Auburn, 161 Wash. 594 (1931).

What is a municipality’s obligation as to the accumulation of snow and ice on streets?

The duty as to ice on streets or roads is discussed in Leroy v. State, 124 Wn. App. 65, 68-69 (2004):

The State has a duty of ordinary care to make its roads reasonably safe for ordinary travel. That duty is conditional, however, for it arises only when the State has notice of, and time to correct, the hazard in question. In short, according to Niebarger v. City of Seattle, [53 Wash. 2d 228 (1958)] the State "must have (a) notice of a dangerous condition which it did not create, and (b) a reasonable opportunity to correct it before liability arises for negligence from neglect of duty to keep the streets safe.

In Wright v. Kennewick, 62 Wn.2d 163, 167 (1962), the court found the city was not liable in a wrongful death suit, stating:

Here, the evidence was that the snow had been on the ground no more than 2 days, and the most recent crust of ice had formed only a few hours earlier. It is plain that the city had not had a reasonable opportunity to remove it.

And finally, in Bird v. Walton, 69 Wn. App. 366, 368-69 (1993), the court found that the Department of Transportation had met its obligation to correct a dangerous condition (i.e., an icy highway) because:

Department maintenance workers were... engaged almost continuously in attempting to sand the highway, up to the moment of the accident, despite dense fog and dangerous driving conditions.

Getting Homeowners to Help

Homeowners can play a big role in keeping sidewalks accessible in their city or county. Here are some questions related to property owners and liability. 

Can an ordinance or resolution be passed to require property owners keep sidewalks clear of snow and ice?  

Yes, a county or city may pass an ordinance or resolution requiring property owners remove snow and ice from the sidewalks adjacent to their homes or businesses. The police power set out in article 11, section 11 of the state constitution would support such a regulation. See AGO 1956 No. 195 or Rivett v. Tacoma, 123 Wn.2d 573 (1994).

If the local government passes an ordinance requiring abutting property owners to remove snow and ice from sidewalks, can it be held liable for failure to enforce the ordinance?  

As a general rule, no. Under the public duty doctrine, a breach of a duty established by statute is not actionable unless the duty was owed to a particular individual, rather than to the public as a whole. See, generally, Taylor v. Stevens County, 111 Wn.2d 159 (1988), and Honcoop v. State, 111 Wn.2d 182 (1988).

Resources

For additional information see our Snow and Ice Removal topic page, which offers sample ordinances, guidelines, parking restrictions, and other policies related to snow removal, as well as sample emergency declarations, from jurisdictions across the state.

These issues can be slippery. You can always Ask MRSC if you have additional questions.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul has worked with local governments since 1974 and has authored MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operations. He also provides training on the Open Public Meetings Act.

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