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Dealing with Snow and Ice on Streets and Sidewalks


December 9, 2021  by  MRSC Insight
Category:  Snow and Ice Removal

Dealing with Snow and Ice on Streets and Sidewalks

Winter is here. In some places, snow may 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 or sidewalks. 

Here are some prior questions MRSC has received related to municipal liability for streets and sidewalks.

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 Washington State Court of Appeals 1978 decision in Nelson v. Tacoma, 19 Wn. App. 807, 808, quotes the general rule from the legal treatise, McQuillin's Law of 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.  

However, this does mean that a local government has no liability. In Holland v. Auburn, 161 Wash. 594 (1931), the 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. The court found that the number of days in which this ice had formed gave the city enough time to notice (and address) this dangerous condition.  

What is a municipality obligated to do when snow and ice accumulates on streets?

The duty of a local government to address ice on streets or roads is discussed in Leroy v. State, 124 Wn. App. 65, 68-69 (2004), which states:

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 Washington State 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 MRSC has received 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 adjacent to their homes or businesses, can it be held liable for failure to enforce this 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

Many local governments maintain webpages, pamphlets, or other information dedicated to informing the public about snow and ice removal within their jurisdiction. These can address a number of items, from reviewing the local government’s snow/ice removal plan to reminding homeowners and business owners of their duties regarding keeping sidewalks clear. Here are a few examples:

Our Snow and Ice Removal topic page offers sample ordinances, guidelines, parking restrictions, and other policies gathered from jurisdictions across the state.

These issues can be slippery. Reach out to our consultants via 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 MRSC Insight

MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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