Landlord Liability Snow

By Cassandre Juste

While the winter season is a wonderful time of year, snow and ice can prove expensive - and dangerous - liabilities for landlords.  From snow-covered sidewalks, to treacherously icy walkways, to roofs collapsing beneath heavy snow, the landlord's liability often changes depending on the state/province and city, and depending on the rental agreement.  If you own property in one of the sunny states consider yourself lucky, because when the snow starts falling, landlord responsibility skyrockets.

Beyond the normal cold weather-related headaches, such as winterizing property, snow maintenance adds a whole new realm of responsibility for landlords and it can be a slippery slope (pun decidedly intended) as landlord-tenant laws outlining snow removal responsibility differs by state/province.

In Massachusetts, the general rule used to be that landowners were responsible for protecting people on their property from injuries caused by “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice, but failed to address the “natural” accumulation of snow and ice.  However that is no longer the case - the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that property owners and landlords are responsible for every inch of snow and ice on their property. For landlords owning multiple properties, this can be quite a costly hassle.  The state of Ohio has caused similar challenges for landlords since a 2002 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court.  Crawford v. Wolfe states that a landlord may be liable for injuries sustained on the property if they could be caused by the landlords’ failure to fulfill their obligations to maintain the safe rental property conditions.

In many states, cities have ordinances requiring snow removal from public sidewalks and paths, and fines for failing to comply with these ordinances.  While landlords of single-family rental properties can specify in the rental agreement that snow removal as the tenant’s responsibility in most states and provinces, multi-family rental properties often have common walkways that the landlord must maintain, and liability is a real concern.

Falls, injuries and snow removal disputes are an easy way to wind up in court with a lawsuit, so what are some common options for avoiding them? 

Specify the Tenant as Responsible in the Rental Agreement

If a landlord decides to leave the tenant responsible for snow removal by specifying this in the rental agreement, it can take a load of responsibility off of the landlord.  Aside from the obvious benefit of not having to take the time to shovel or pay someone else to do it, by stating that the tenant will be held accountable for snow removal in the lease, there is less liability for the landlord. If the tenant fails to properly remove the snow and a stranger falls and is injured, the landlord can simply reference the written rental contract showing the tenant was responsible for snow removal.  However, because there is so much variety in state and provincial law, it is essential to be aware of local landlord-tenant laws. 

Do-It-Yourself

If local law prohibits the landlord from assigning responsibility to the tenant, there are still positive aspects of opting to do it yourself over hiring a contractor.  First and foremost, it can be cost-effective - for landlords or property managers that own or have access to a truck and a plow, the D.I.Y. route will save money.  Another advantage is that by handling the snow removal yourself, you can ensure that the work is done properly (which does not always happen when asking a third party to do it). 

Hiring A Contractor

While it does require spending money, some landlords do not mind when writing a check from the warm and cozy confines of their home, opposed to spending hours plowing and shoveling.  For landlords that own multiple properties (especially if the properties are not close to one another), hiring a contractor may be the only option.

Regardless of which route landlords decide to take, it is critical that landlords understand their local laws, and if necessary ensure safe and complete snow removal.  A sloppy snow removal job can result in injuries and lawsuits, which no landlord wants on their hands.