Missouri property owners should clear sidewalks of snow--local TV station gets it wrong

A recent report on Fox4KC claimed that "In Missouri, if you clear your walkway and someone falls, you could be at more risk of being sued than if you just left it alone."

In short, Fox4 is wrong for these reasons:

  • Most Missouri cities require property owners to clear public sidewalks--those on the public streets alongside their property--within a reasonable time after snow or ice storms are over.
  • So the statement Fox4 quotes applies only to interior sidewalks--for instance, the sidewalk leading from a store's parking lot to its entrance, or the sidewalk leading from the street to your front door.  But even for those sidewalks:
    • If you exercise reasonable care when cleaning the snow and ice, you will have no additional legal liability.
    • You can indeed open yourself to additional risk of being sued by being stupid/careless when clearing the ice and snow--for instance, by clearing an area, leaving a flat sheet of ice, and then not putting down any sand or salt on it.  Simple solution: Don't be stupid or careless. Just do an ordinary, decent job of it and all is well.
    • Property owners have an obligation to clear walkways they know people will use within a reasonable time once a snow or ice storm is over.  In other words, "just leaving it alone" is, in fact, what opens property owners to lawsuits.

Read on for all the details and sources of the information in the above summary.

More at risk--or less--if you clear your walkways?
The law being the law and the courts being the courts, the situation is a little more complex than we would like.

But given that caveat--which would apply to any legal matter with numerous court cases behind it--Fox4 managed to spin this pretty much 100% wrong.

Of course you could be more at risk of being sued if you clear the walkways, particularly if you go out of your way to be especially and unusually stupid and dangerous in the way you do it.

But this summary of the Missouri law and legal precedents provided by the Missouri Bar Association makes it perfectly clear that:

  • Property owners who exercise ordinary care in clearing sidewalks and walkways are, in general, not any more liable for injuries than those who do nothing.
  • No one is required to go to superhuman efforts to remove every bit of snow or ice while a snow or ice storm is underway.
  • But once the storm is over, if you don't make reasonable efforts to clear areas you know people will use, your liability increases.
In short, you don't have to keep walkways clear during a storm (though nothing is stopping you from trying, if you like), but you should clear them within a reasonable time afterwards. You don't have to clear every single walkway but you have to make some safe way for people to get to the places they need to go.

And you have a duty to exercise reasonable care when you clear the walkways--for instance, not leaving them more dangerous when you're done. If you follow the same general procedure most people do when clearing snow or ice--shoveling a path through the snow as well as possible given existing conditions and spreading some salt or anti-slip material on any remaining ice--you're good.

Doing that will reduce your liability--and failing to clear that snow and ice definitely will increase your liability.

Again, don't take my word for it.  But if you don't, please read with extreme care the Missouri Bar Association's summary of Missouri court cases on the subject, which I've summarized above.

Requirement to clear public sidewalks in most cities
The above points apply to sidewalks within a property--for instance, the sidewalks and walkways leading from a
store's parking area to its entrance.
For public sidewalks along the street, another consideration applies:
  • Most Missouri cities (and most cities across the nation) require property owners to clear the public sidewalks on or adjacent to their property within a reasonable time after snow or ice storms.
  • A Missouri high court ruling from 1928 upheld the constitutionality of the laws requiring property owners to clear their sidewalks.
For instance--
Section 24-12 Cleaning sidewalks.
All persons are hereby required to keep the sidewalks in front of, or adjacent to, the property or premises owned or occupied by them or under their control, within the city, clear and free from rubbish, filth, refuse, dirt, snow, ice and from any and all obstructions and dangerous agencies of every kind and description whatsoever; and any person failing to observe the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.
Sec. 64-246. Removal of ice or snow.
It shall be the duty of all persons owning or occupying any real property, fronting upon any street, boulevard or highway, to remove from the sidewalks in front or alongside of such property all ice and snow within a reasonable time after cessation of a storm depositing such ice or snow. The provisions of chapter 62, article III, pertaining to littering, and penalties for violations thereof, shall be applicable to violations of this section.
11.18.210 Snow removal.
After any fall of snow, owners, managers, agents or occupiers of any premises shall cause the snow to be immediately removed from the improved area of the sidewalk in the public street adjacent to such premises, and the improved area of the sidewalk shall also be kept clear of ice at all times. If no part of the sidewalk area be improved, then a lane five feet wide in the sidewalk area shall be kept free from snow and ice at all times. Where structures contain six or more units, it shall be the duty of the owner or agent of the owner to comply with this provision. Where structures contain between one or six units, it shall be the duty of the person occupying the units nearest the public street, as well as the owner or agent of the owner, in-volved to comply with the requirements of this section. (Ord. 56726 ? 1 (part), 1974: 1960 C. ? 805.210.)
302.3 Private property areas.
All sidewalks, steps, driveways, parking spaces and similar paved areas on private property shall be kept in a proper state of repair, free of all snow, ice, mud, overhanging trees and shrubs which obstruct walkways, and other debris and shall be maintained free of hazardous conditions. If any sidewalk or driveway or portion thereof on private property by virtue of its state of repair shall constitute a danger to public health and safety, the sidewalk or driveway or portion thereof shall be replaced. Steps shall comply with the requirements for exterior stairs.

Again--some cities may not have the requirement to keep sidewalks clear, but most do.

You can find the requirements for your own city by searching the city code section of your city's web site or calling your city hall.

Who uses those sidewalks?
In the meanwhile--clear your sidewalks! It's no more difficult than clearing your driveway and yes--lots of people do walk on those sidewalks all winter long.

I've been walking all over Raytown the past week or so and pretty much every (completely snow covered) sidewalk I've been on has had tracks.  People do use them, even in the dead of winter.

And when the snow is this deep, probably 10 people walk in the street--where the snow has been cleared--for every one who struggles through the deep snow.

As the St. Joseph News-Press wrote:

. . . sidewalks are often used by senior citizens, children and people with special needs . . .

Those people--people without a driver's license--make up more than 30% of our population and 16% of adults. When the sidewalk is impassable, those folk end up walking in the street--and that's not good for anyone.

It's just not that hard to shovel it by klmontgomery in FlickR

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