That biting chill of winter, if not already here, will soon be upon us. In the age of COVID-19, with gyms either still closed or less appealing to those wanting to stay active, the homebound looking to simply get out for some fresh air, and deliveries of goods to homes abounding, there may well be more pedestrians traversing our community's public sidewalks. This begs the question- if those sidewalks get hit with a coating of snow or ice, who is responsible for making them safe for those using them?
There are two possible sources of a legal duty on a landowner to clear the sidewalks adjacent to their property: our state's common law (developed through appellate court decisions), and local statutes/ordinances. If the landowner violates the legal duty they can be held responsible civilly for injuries to persons caused by the resulting condition, and/or the government entity enacting the statute or ordinance might cite and penalize them.
The upshot is that the courts have held that Washington property owners have no common-law duty to clear naturally occurring accumulation of snow and ice from public sidewalks adjacent to their property, but they may have a legal duty to do so if a statutory provision requires them to. In unincorporated Clark County sidewalks are governed by Code Sec. 12.26.010, which requires abutting property owners to keep public sidewalks in “good order and repair”, and states that the landowner liable to the county for failure to do so when someone is injured as a result. Does this code provision require the landowner to clear snow and ice within a reasonable time? This, alas, is unclear. In the City of Vancouver limits, an ordinance does affirmatively require it of landowners.
Additionally, if the accumulation is not natural (such as if the property owner does something affirmative to place the collection of ice or snow, or does something to make it more dangerous), the landowner can still be held responsible for resulting injuries due to their negligence. The lesson here is, if you're going to undertake clearing the sidewalk adjacent to your property, do it correctly and safely- don't make it more dangerous.
Sidewalks or pathways on private land are a different story. These might include your driveway and the path from the driveway or sidewalk to your door. Here, the status of the person visiting may alter the legal duty of the owner significantly in a civil personal injury case. Be warned- delivery drivers may well be considered “business invitees” of the property owner, and there would then be a legal duty on the property owner to take reasonable measures to make their premises safe for those entering.
What does this require specifically of the landowner? What constitutes negligence is often variable given the surrounding circumstances- but you don't want to find out the hard way you fell short of the standard. Especially if you're expecting guests or deliveries, be sure to have your private walkways or other access points shoveled and clear. Not only will this help protect you from civil claims of liability, but it will help keep everyone safe and healthy.