Shovel Your Sidewalk, or Else

Property owners who don't clean up snow that falls on sidewalks face fines and even legal liability

This should be you.

Photographer: Getty Images

There's a silver lining to the super-snowstorm that wasn't: less snow to shovel. That doesn't mean you can ignore your sidewalk, though. Most cities have the authority to levy fines for not shoveling your sidewalk after a snowstorm. In New York, the fines can be $100 or more. Boston charges at least $50 for each day a sidewalk remains covered by snow. Fines in Philadelphia run from $50 to $300, while Washington just enacted a law (PDF) fining residences $25 and businesses $150 for an unshoveled walk. 

Most cities make clear that you don’t need to start shoveling until the snow stops. New Yorkers have four hours after a storm stops to clear the sidewalks; if it stops snowing overnight, they have until 11 a.m. Many courts also protect property owners with a “storm in progress” rule: No one is expected to begin shoveling while a storm is raging.  

Along with common decency, enhanced by the threat of fines, there's an additional reason landlords and homeowners should hustle to clear sidewalks. They could find themselves legally liable if someone were inured. Slip-and-falls are the bread and butter of many personal injury attorneys, so such questions have been extensively litigated. This doesn’t mean the rules are clear to laymen. Various states—and judges—can hold very different opinions as to when an owner has been negligent by not clearing away ice patches or slippery snow.

Some states, including Illinois and Ohio, make a distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice. If a hazardous walkway is the natural result of winter weather, it’s not the landowner’s responsibility. But if it’s somehow unnatural—such as the result of a broken drainpipe or a defective sidewalk—then the owner (or more likely, an insurance company) is on the hook.

This rule can sometimes have perverse results: A landowner who leave a walkway untouched might avoid all liability. But one that has done a poor job of clearing the walk, leaving it more dangerous than when the shoveling started, may be successfully sued. The take-away: When you shovel, do it right.

The “natural” and “unnatural” accumulation rule was law in Massachusetts for more than 100 years. In 2010, the state Supreme Judicial Court decided that the distinction made no sense, putting Massachusetts with the other New England states. Property owners owe visitors a “reasonable” level of care of their property during a winter storm, the court ruled. That's just what they owe property visitors the rest of the year.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.