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The Role of Cities and Counties in Keeping Winter Walking (and Driving) Safe

December 14, 2020  by  Flannary Collins
Category:  Snow and Ice Removal

The Role of Cities and Counties in Keeping Winter Walking (and Driving) Safe

One safe activity many Washingtonians are enjoying during the pandemic are their neighborhood walks. Snow and ice have arrived in many parts of Washington already and are soon to arrive in those places still holding onto 50 degree, fall-like weather. What can Washington cities and counties do to help keep neighborhood walks safe for the public even after the winter weather arrives?

Encourage Property Owners to Keep Sidewalks Clear

One approach cities and counties can take is to adopt an ordinance requiring property owners to remove snow and ice from the sidewalk adjacent to their property. Local ordinances often require property owners maintain their sidewalks and many specifically call out snow and ice removal. Requiring property owners maintain adjacent sidewalks is an allowable exercise of a city or county’s police power found in Article 11, Section 11 of the state constitution. One example of such an ordinance is the City of Yakima, which requires property owners make a reasonable effort to clear the sidewalk adjacent to their property by 9:00 am every day after snowfall; or, as an alternative, when removal is not practical due to snow accumulation, disperse sand or other material to allow for sidewalk use.

If the local government passes such an ordinance but does not enforce it, the public duty doctrine will generally shield the local government from liability. 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 (1988) and Honcoop v. State (1988).

Can the city or county be liable for snow- or ice-related injuries?

What if a city or county doesn’t adopt an ordinance requiring property owners clear snow and ice from sidewalks? Will the city or county be liable if someone is injured because of snow or ice accumulation? As a general matter, the answer is “No.” To paraphrase information in the legal treatise, McQuillin: The Law of Municipal Corporations (2020), and supported by the Washington State Court of Appeals in Nelson v. Tacoma:

  • There is no municipal liability for injuries caused by natural and ordinary accumulation of snow and ice on sidewalks unless “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.”
  • There is no municipal liability for injuries resulting from the slippery condition of a sidewalk caused by smooth ice or snow, although there may be municipal liability “if the snowy or icy sidewalk itself was defective, or the ice and snow, formed into ridges, drifts or hillocks, amounted to a dangerous obstruction to travel, the element of knowledge being shown.”

Contrast this with Holland v. Auburn, where the city was liable for a pedestrian injury where the individual slipped on a sidewalk on which a mound of ice had formed over 6-7 days and the condition was so open and obvious that it is assumed the city had notice of the mound of ice.

What about roads?

Although, overall, traffic volume has been down during the pandemic, traffic is sure to pick up around the holidays. So, jurisdictions should also have a plan for clearing snow and ice from the roadways. Many jurisdictions detail their snow removal priorities in their local policies, assigning different priorities to different types of streets. For example, Mason County’s policy prioritizes snow removal from emergency routes, followed by primary roads, then secondary roads, and finally local access roads. And don’t forget to provide direction to the public on where to park their cars during snow events in order to facilitate plowing. Recognizing that during the pandemic more people are keeping their cars parked outside their homes for longer periods of time, the City of Spokane has asked the community to help by parking cars on the odd side of the street for the snow season and has prohibited on-street parking on snowy days in the downtown area between 12:00 — 6:00 AM.

As for liability for damages and injuries suffered by drivers because of snowy and icy conditions, there are two things to consider:

  1. Under RCW 47.24.020(6), cities must clear snow from state highways located within city limits (although the state will plow those roads when necessary); and
  2. A public agency must have a reasonable opportunity to clear the snow and ice from streets to establish agency liability.

This latter point is supported by Washington case law, including:

  • Leroy v. State (2004), which held that the state owes a duty of reasonable care to keep its streets safe and free of icy conditions only when it has had notice of and time to correct the hazard;
  • Wright v. Kennewick (1962), which held that the city was not liable for injuries caused by icy roads because it did not have reasonable opportunity to remove snow that had been on the ground not more than two days, with a recent ice crust that had formed just hours before the accident; and 
  • Bird v. Walton (1993), which held that the state was not liable for an injury caused by icy roads because, although they had noticed ice was forming on highway, state workers were engaged almost continuously in attempting to sand the highway despite working under dangerous conditions.

We didn’t adopt a winter weather plan before the snow arrived. What do we do?

Sometimes snow will arrive with a surprise overnight and local agencies will find themselves without a suitable plan in place. Local agencies can declare an emergency due to extreme weather, which provides more flexibility in entering into contracts for winter-related work, such as snow and ice removal. The City of Lacey adopted such a resolution in 2012, and the MRSC topic page Local Government Emergency Planning has additional information on emergency declarations.

With careful planning now, local governments can help their constituents step safely into the new year.

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 Flannary Collins

Flannary Collins is the Managing Attorney for MRSC. Flannary first joined MRSC as a legal consultant in August 2013 after serving as assistant city attorney for the city of Shoreline where she advised all city departments on a wide range of issues.

At MRSC, Flannary enjoys providing legal guidance to municipalities on all municipal issues, including the OPMA, PRA, and personnel. She also serves on the WSAMA Board of Directors as Secretary-Treasurer.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Flannary Collins


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