A Winter Reminder: No Excuses For Icy Sidewalks

An icy walkway in Providence (Mr. Ducke/Flickr)

No. (Mr. Ducke/Flickr)

The snow might have melted away, but I felt like an amateur tightrope walker on the sidewalks of Cambridge this morning as I tried to avoid the ice.

Property owners must shovel their sidewalks.* As I reported back in July — when no one was thinking about snow — a Supreme Judicial Court ruling eliminates nearly every excuse imaginable.

If you don’t shovel your sidewalk after a snowfall and someone slips and gets hurt, you’re liable. Until today, property owners could argue the white stuff was “natural accumulation,” thanks to an 1883 ruling that made the hair-splitting distinction.

The Supreme Judicial Court on Monday threw out that logic in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation.

In other words, your sidewalk must be clear even if the accumulation formed after you shoveled. (Even if you don’t live on the property, or it’s the weekend and your business is closed, or you’re on vacation!) It’s the “no excuses” ruling that could lead to a lot of slip-and-fall lawsuits this winter.

*There is no state statute that mandates snow removal. Chapter 85, Section 5, of Mass. general law sidesteps the issue by authorizing cities and towns to regulate:

Cities by ordinance and towns by by-laws may provide for the removal of snow and ice from sidewalks within such portions of the city or town as they consider expedient by the owner or occupant of land abutting upon such sidewalks.

So a Statie couldn’t write you a ticket for failing to shovel. But you could slip, sue and win in court.

In honor of the SJC ruling, I have written an alternative first verse for the Christmas classic “Silver Bells.”

Snowy sidewalks, icy sidewalks
White stuff clumped in a pile
In the air there’s a feeling
Of lawsuits
Children crying, people falling
Meeting lawsuits and trial
And on every street corner you’ll hear…

Shovel, please. (Shovel, please.)
Shovel, please! (Shovel, please!)
Soon it will be Judgment Day.

Seriously, just shovel your sidewalk.

6 thoughts on “A Winter Reminder: No Excuses For Icy Sidewalks

  1. joyce godsey

    I am so NOT shoveling my sidewalk. it accumulates 10×5 foot high snowbanks due to the city plowing. i’d have to buy a backhoe. if the city wants it open, they should use the sidewalk plow they own and don’t use.

  2. geffe

    You know Boston is becoming an awful city to live in.
    The plows create the problems. Not me. I shovel and they put it back. Now I hear that they are going to raise taxes by 7.5%. I’m thinking it’s time to move, if I can sell my house. The other issue is the sidewalk is CITY property it does not belong to home owners. How this became a law is absurd and an abuse of power in my view.

  3. Gebius

    The ruling was against Target and the unshoveled area was in a private parking lot (Liberty Tree Mall). I’m not sure how this affects the publicly-owned sidewalks in front of people’s houses. If that’s owned by the town and I fall, wouldn’t I sue the owner of the sidewalk (the town) and not the owners of the abutting property.

    This is interesting as it would seem that, even in towns that have mandated shoveling ordinances, if someone slips and falls, they can sue the town.

  4. Paul

    Three years ago I broke my shoulder falling on an icy sidewalk in South Boston. This was about 4:00pm, and fresh snow had obscured an icy patch left from the previous nights’ snow. For you non-shovelers who don’t know it, snow doesn’t take long to get packed into ice on a heavily trafficked sidewalk.

    Ice and snow remained on that stretch of sidewalk UNTIL IT MELTED about a week later. I will not go through that again.

    So non-shovelers take note: Although I’m not a litigious person, (I didn’t take legal action three years ago), this year I have the Mayors’ office and my attorneys’ office on speed dial.

    Clean your sidewalk.

  5. Peter

    Phelps sounds like a man who has never picked up shovel in his life. I’m sixty eight and have been shoveling after New England storms all my life. Anyone who thinks shoveling a sidewalk will prevent slips and falls is an idiot.

  6. Frustrated in Somerville

    Shovel your sidewalk down to the pavement from end to end, clearing the entrance to the crosswalk and salting properly. Take it slow and do it properly and you won’t injury yourself. I have a back injury and I clear my sidewalks completely and salt them. I take it slow I rest a minute after every second shovel load.

    Don’t put the snow in the street, put it on your property: on your lawn, on your fenced in garden area, or fenced in paved area in my case. Pile it high, pile it deep its snow it sticks together, just get it off the sidewalk.

    Don’t be lazy and shovel a path for just one person to walk. People with baby strollers, with TAG folding shopping carts, with wheeled luggage and handicap people in wheelchairs need to be able to use the sidewalk too so clear the whole length and width of the sidewalk squares. If you live on a corner lot please also clear your crosswalk entrance so we can easily and safely cross the street with our carts, strollers, luggage and wheelchairs.

    We live in a mixed use residential and commercial area because we like being able to walk around to local shops and businesses. The sidewalks should be accessible year round. Choosing to live here comes with it a responsibility to properly clear our sidewalks of snow and ice and to salt them. So please shovel your sidewalks.