Shovel Early and Often!
This winter has been one of the snowiest on record, and there is another major snow event on the way. Judging from the astronomical number of recent clicks on this blog, it’s clear that people want to know all about Massachusetts snow removal law. The law underwent a monumental change back in 2010 with a Supreme Judicial Court decision overruling the 125 year old “Massachusetts Rule” which allowed property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and avoid liability. Now, owners are under a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice. Moreover, cities and towns have been passing all types of new snow removal ordinances and by-laws regulating whether owners must shovel public/private sidewalks, and how long they have to clear snow.
It’s clear that it’s time to give you the most up-to-date information. So here is a fresh set of Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) with links at the end to various city and town webpages on their snow removal policies. Good luck and stay safe!
I own a two family rental property with a driveway and one common walkway and entrance. Am I responsible for shoveling snow on the driveway and/or walkway?
The answer is yes. Under a 2010 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, all property owners (rental or owner occupied) can be held liable for failing to remove snow and ice from their property. The old rule was that owners didn’t have to remove “natural accumulations” of snow and ice, but the court overruled that in favor of a general obligation to keep property safe for all visitors and guests. There are also many local town and city ordinances which likewise obligate property owners to keep snow and ice off their property and sidewalks. I will discuss some of those below.
Can I use a lease which provides that the tenant is responsible for snow removal. Is that legal and will that protect me from liability?
It depends on your particular property. Landlords have the primary responsibility for snow removal at a rental property. Under the State Sanitary Code, property owners/landlords must keep all means of egress free from obstruction — that cannot be negotiated away. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the landlord shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. Again, those obligations cannot be negotiated away.
A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove in a lease provision only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. On its face, this exception only applies to entrance-ways and not driveways or parking areas. I am not aware of a court ruling on this particular Code provision, but if I were a landlord I would not risk being on the wrong side of a “test case” where someone is injured badly.
So, in the example above with an owner occupied two family with one common entrance and driveway, that lease provision would be illegal.
Even if the tenant is responsible for snow removal under a legal lease provision, the landlord could still face personal injury liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under the SJC ruling. A guest or visitor who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors.
How soon do I have to shovel the snow before I get in trouble?
The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 12 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.
Am I required to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house/business after a storm?
In most Massachusetts towns and cities, the answer is yes. Check your local town ordinances for guidance. The cities of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester (among others) all require property owners and businesses to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. Fines are assessed against non-compliance. In Somerville, for example, if snow ceases to fall after sunrise (during daylight hours), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 p.m, and if snow ceases to fall after sunset (overnight), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 a.m. You can also be fined for shoveling snow onto the street, blocking a curb cut or putting snow on municipal owned property.
In some more residential towns, the local DPW will clear the sidewalks, but the default rule is that property owners are generally responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and driveways.
Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?
Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.
I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?
You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable.
Winter Storm Precautions
- Keep roads clear to allow plowing operations to proceed smoothly.
- Use care around downed power lines. Assume a down wire is a live wire.
- Check in with your neighbors, especially those that may need assistance.
- Help dig out fire hydrants and storm drains in your neighborhood.
- If you live on a corner, clear a path from the sidewalk to the street. If not precisely on the corner, as close to the corner as you can get.
- Avoid parking too close to corners, allowing Public Safety vehicles and plows to maneuver safely.
- Be aware of children playing in the streets, particularly climbing on or running out from behind large snowdrifts
- Parents should remind their children to be aware of plowing operations and traffic.
- Clear exhaust vents from Direct Vent Gas Furnace Systems to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Never run an automobile until exhaust pipe has been cleared of snow.
- Make sure backup generators are well ventilated.
- Take your time shoveling. Avoid overexertion.
- For homes heated by oil please be sure a safe route is available for delivery to your oil fill pipe.
- Clear flat roofs and decks to prevent accumulation of snow/ice over the season.