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

A backhoe shovels snow from in front of a government building into a dump truck

Snow and ice have arrived in many parts of Washington, and it may arrive elsewhere soon. This can make something as simple as a neighborhood walk treacherous, and it also means challenging winter driving. What can Washington cities and counties do to help keep sidewalks and roads safe for the public even after the winter weather arrives?

This blog covers two critical approaches for local governments: encouraging property owners to maintain sidewalks and ensuring the agency has a plan for maintaining its network of roads.

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. Requiring property owners to 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.

Local ordinances often require that property owners maintain their sidewalks and many specifically call out snow and ice removal. Here are two such examples

  • Wenatchee Municipal Code Chapter 7.24 — Requires property owners to remove snow and ice from sidewalks and walking areas within 24 hours of a snowstorm. If snow or ice cannot be removed from the sidewalk, the owner is required to ”apply sand, de-icer or other suitable material.”
  • Yakima Municipal Code Chapter 8.8 — Requires property owners make a reasonable effort to clear the sidewalk adjacent to their property by 9:00 am every day after snowfall, or, when removal is not practical due to snow accumulation, disperse sand or other material that would allow for safer sidewalk use.

Can a city or county be held liable for snow- or ice-related injuries on sidewalks?

If the local government passes an ordinance placing the burden of clearing and maintaining sidewalks on adjacent property owners, but does not enforce it and someone is injured, 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).

If a city or county does not have such an ordinance and a sidewalk injury occurs as a result of snow or ice accumulation, the local government is also generally not liable unless certain conditions exist. 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 (1978):

  • 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 “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 when an individual slipped on a sidewalk on which a mound of ice had formed over six-to-seven-day period, it was assumed the city had notice of the condition because it was so open and visible.

Keep in mind, if a public agency is the adjacent property owner, then the agency would be liable for injury in the same way as any other property owner.

Have a Plan in Place for Streets and Roads

Jurisdictions should have a plan for clearing snow and ice from the roadways, especially around the holidays when traffic is sure to pick up.

Many jurisdictions detail their snow removal priorities in their local policies, assigning different priorities to different types of streets. For example, Mason County, Spokane County, and the Zillah prioritize snow removal from emergency routes, followed by primary roads, then secondary roads, and, finally, local access roads. Some jurisdiction, such as King County, Clark County, and Chelan County offer interactive maps outlining snow routes by priority.

Many cities and counties will also direct the public where to park their cars during snow events in order to facilitate plowing in more densely populated areas, such as the City of Spokane, which ask community members to park cars on the odd side of the street for the snow season (November 15- Match 15) and prohibits on-street parking on snowy days in the downtown area between 12:00 — 6:00 AM. Additional examples of parking restrictions can be found on our Snow and Ice Removal webpage.

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

  • 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
  • A public agency must have a reasonable opportunity to clear snow and ice from streets prior to being able 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 the highway, state workers were engaged almost continuously in attempting to sand the highway, despite working under dangerous conditions.

What if snow arrives and we do not yet have a plan in place or there are unforeseen issues to address?

Sometimes snow will arrive unexpectedly, and local agencies will find themselves without a suitable plan in place. Cities and counties can declare an emergency due to extreme weather, which provides an agency with more flexibility in entering into contracts for winter-related work. Our sample document library offers winter weather-related emergency resolutions, including from Yakima (2022), West Richland (2019), and Whatcom County (2017), and our Local Government Emergency Planning webpage has additional information on emergency declarations.

With careful planning now, local governments can help their residents 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.

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