Articles

To Shovel Or Not To Shovel: THAT is the Question!

By: Attorney Anne P. McHugh

Homeowner liability based on New Jersey slip & fall injury laws

 

In a society which some say is overly litigious, granting injured persons a right to sue over anything and everything, you will be surprised to learn that the last bastion of freedom from lawsuits is the New Jersey public sidewalk adjacent to your residential property. We are talking now about your home in which you live, not a home in which you might have an office, not a commercial property, not a residence that you lease to another but your sidewalk adjacent to your home in which you live.

Yes, as a general proposition an abutting homeowner owes no duty to pedestrians using his/her sidewalk to remove ice and snow under New Jersey law. This is not to say, however, that a homeowner cannot be fined for failing to remove snow and ice in accordance with local municipal law. But a fine from the borough or township for failing to comply with a local snow/ice removal ordinance does not provide the basis for liability to a pedestrian who slips & falls and is injured on one’s sidewalk. The law in New Jersey regarding snow and ice removal and injured pedestrians remains clear: If a homeowner does nothing to remove ice or snow from his or her premises and a person is injured as a result of the snow or ice accumulation, there exists no liability. However, the law takes a bizarre twist and holds that if you do go out to shovel snow, or salt and sand accumulations of ice and you do a bad job at your task, then guess what? Yes, you can be held liable for injury sustained by a pedestrian who slipped on your poorly shoveled walk. One might call the decision to clean your walks after a storm a Hobson’s choice. Ironically, you may be safer doing nothing!

However, your local government may have an ordinance that requires you to remove snow and ice as does Princeton Borough and Princeton Twp., and your failure to comply with either of these ordinances can lead to a fine. It does not lead, however, to an imposition of liability for injuries sustained by pedestrians unless you have done a poor job at your task. Both Princeton Township and Princeton Borough require homeowners to remove snow and ice or be exposed to a potential fine or the cost of removal by the municipality. In the case of the township, homeowners are required to remove all snow and ice “when practicable,” or in the case of ice which may be so frozen as to make removal impracticable then the homeowner is required to thoroughly cover the sidewalk with sand or other suitable material within 48 hours of the accumulation. Remember too, you cannot toss your snow onto Township streets making your job even more difficult.

As for Princeton Borough, there too, the homeowner is required to remove the snow or ice or be subject to fine or the cost of Borough removal. Specifically, Sec. 28-16 requires an owner to remove all snow and ice from the abutting sidewalk, but within 24, not 48 hours of accumulation. The same requirement regarding ice applies to the Borough as with the Township, but again, the timeline is far less. Presumably, the tighter timeline established by the Borough reflects the density of population in the Borough and the use of its public sidewalks on a more intense basis.

Practicing personal injury law for many years, specifically slip & fall accidents, has led me to the proposition that the law generally makes sense and is rational. However, sidewalk law and snow and ice removal in New Jersey defies that proposition by encouraging people to do nothing in fear of potential litigation. Rarely do local governments step in and clear your sidewalk and then send you the bill. So the bottom line is if you brave the cold with shovel and salt, be forewarned not to make it more slippery or more dangerous or you will be subject to liability for personal injury to a pedestrian.
 

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