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Clearing snow off the pavement: Can you be sued if you do it badly?

January 11, 2010 14 Comments

'elf and safety gone mad, innit? The weather has prompted several stories about how, if you clear snow from the pavement outside your house, you are laying yourself open to litigation.

As Jack of Kent explained over several tweets, by clearing the pavement you are assuming a duty of care - so if you do it badly, you would, theoretically, be liable if someone hurt themselves. (To be clear, he's not saying this has ever happened.)

Mark Pack asks the all important question. Has anyone ever actually sued successfully as a result of someone clearing snow on the pavement outside their house?

The media: don't clear snow!

You'd think someone would know. After all, you can read about the risk in a lot of places:

  • Daily Telegraph: "if we take it on ourselves to grit pavements, or to clear them of ice by other means, we lay ourselves open to the possibility of legal action from those who slip if we do a less-than-perfect job. (Source.)
  • BBC: "You are taking a theoretical legal risk if you clear the pavement in front of your home." Although they do concede that "It would be quite difficult to prove and quite difficult to proceed with a claim." (Source.)
  • The Sun: "HOMEOWNERS and businesses have been warned NOT to clear snowy pavements - because they could be sued if someone slips." (Source.)
  • Daily Mail: Householders and businesses have been warned not to clear snowy pavements - as they could be sued if someone slips. (Source.)

I should point out that this risk of litigation seems fair enough to me. If you do something incompetently, and someone is injured as a result, surely they should be able to sue you?

Anyway, I decided to search Google for any evidence of someone successfully suing in the UK over a badly cleared snowy pavement ...

So has it ever happened?

So I did a Google search for "sue slipped ice" to try and find out. There are lots of people asking the question. And various people are suing or have sued councils over how they gritted (or didn't) the roads.

But in the first 250 results, I couldn't find a single report of this ever having actually happening ...

So then I searched for the words "sue pavement cleared snow" and I couldn't see any sign of a law suit, successful or otherwise, in the first 100 results (although lots of people are saying not to clear the pavement, just in case).

To sum up: if you do something and put people at risk, they may sue you if they hurt themselves due to your actions. Whether they would be successful is another matter - and there don't appear to be any reported cases of anyone suing after falling over on a pavement that someone did a bad job of clearing of snow.

(And note that this isn't the position with your own driveway, where you do have a duty of care to people who might visit - so you do need to make it safe).

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  • Pauline says:

    I thought I'd try a search in land of the litigator - America. I substituted sidewalk for pavement in the search phrase, threw in a couple more legal terms as well, and discovered that Americans try to sue for slipping on ice but usually fail, due to the hazard being "open and obvious" whatever that means.

    Anyway, here's a wry view of he American legal position:

  • Hi Malcolm,

    The Sunday Telegraph Report about businesses gritting public spaces was inaccurate – there is no IOSH guidance telling businesses not to grit. We were contacted by the Telegraph for a comment last week and supplied one saying that we encourage businesses to be a good employer and neighbour by gritting beyond property boundaries to prevent accidents and to make sure that the task is carried out thoroughly.

    This comment was ignored, and instead they took words from the “Just Ask” column of SHP magazine in February last year, contributed by legal consultancy Croner, and attributed them to IOSH, passing this off as guidance issued by IOSH to its members.

    IOSH has been completely misrepresented. Full details of the story and inaccuracies of the Telegraph report are on our website

  • To me the Telegraph's article implid that it was the shop's insurers who were advising against clearing the snow, and this was confirmed to me by the owner of a local shop.
    If insurers take this line, who will take the risk. I have public liability insurance as part of my home insurance, perhaps I should ring them and ask.

  • [...] where did the story come from? As explained by the IOSH in a comment on Malcolm Coles’s blog: This comment [quoted above] was ignored, and instead they took words from the “Just Ask” [...]

  • Bob says:

    Since no-one seems to know what the answer to the question of whether to clear snow or not, I think there should be some government guidance...that's what they are there for aren't they..?
    I don't believe that any attempt to clear snow is a bad thing, but how do we know what to do, where do I put the snow, if I put in on the road and it causes an accident, then am I to often do I have to do it, will the salt affect any services..? who is going to tell us..?

  • Bob - I think clearing the snow from the pavement is fine as long as you leave the pavement safe. By interfering, you could get in trouble if you left it unsafe. You can't get into trouble not doing it as the pavement isn't usually your responsibility. So if you cleared snow from the pavement but left black ice and someone slipped and fell, you'd be in trouble.

    On your own property, the reverse is true as I understand it (I'm no lawyer, obv). If there was a big hole that the snow had obscured on your drive and the postman fell down it, you'd be in trouble.

    So make your own property safe (I don't think a bit of obvious snow makes it unsafe but as I say, I'm no lawyer). And clear other property (EG the pavement) only if you've got time and ability to do a proper job.

  • [...] where did the story come from? As explained by the IOSH in a comment on Malcolm Coles’s blog: This comment [quoted above] was ignored, and instead they took words from the “Just Ask” [...]

  • Changing tack a bit on snow clearing, has anyone veer tried using a weed eater to melt it. You know those gas powered flame thrower things that people have to clear paths and beds of weeds and undergrowth - or a massive hot air blower.

  • andy bunday says:

    Thank you for raising this question online. I have been asking the same thing of all those who berate me for clearing the pavement outside my house. There may be a theoretical legal case to answer but can you imagine such a case making it to court? With so many variables at play, how could the blame be laid solely at the door of the person who cleared the road? Perhaps the person who fell wasn't paying attention - talking on a mobile maybe - or perhaps they were just unlucky, with nobody to blame. If you were a presiding magistrate how would you read it?

  • Brin Dunsire says:

    What we could do with, to cut through all this nonsense, is a statement by the Legal Aid Office saying they will not fund unmeritorious actions over snow clearance, and another by a group of judges saying they will not award costs against householders and businesses except in the most outrageous cases of incompetent clearing. That should see off the no-win-no-fee types and the speculative claimants. Unfortunately, our judges are unlikely to give any indication of their views outside of an actual case, as "each case is different". We therefore need a test case funded by a civic-responsibility body which is rejected in ringing fashion, and then widely reported. Simples !

  • Bob says:

    "I should point out that this risk of litigation seems fair enough to me"

    it's morons like you talking utter sh!te like the above that is ruining this country and any remaining sense of community that we have. Get off your lazy self serving arse and clear the pavement, if everyone does a little bit we'll all get on a lot better

  • Bob says:

    The last comment posted by 'Bob' on Dec 12 2010 at 1:37 am ! was not from the same Bob who commented on Jan 12 2010 at 6:06pm.

    I still think that a government minister should make a comment about this; again...'WHAT ARE WE PAYING POLITICIANS FOR ??'. it these people who don't give a sh*** and are only in it for making money. Its the same with ground rent leases.. another system set up for the benefit of legalised crime which the last government said they would abolish...but perhaps they don't like the idea of losing tax from it.
    ... Bob1...

  • Tom Thomas says:

    I would just get out there and clear the snow away. All this rubbish about being sued, it ain't gonna happen.

  • Phil says:

    Will show you what to do. Go and clear the snow..

    and no suing!!

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