Property Owners: How to Avoid Winter Weather Claims

Posted by Matt Simon on Sep 10, 2015

Snow might be the last thing on your mind right now, but it’ll be here before you know it.  And taking the proper precautions by preparing while the weather is still cooperative can really pay off for you when we’re dealing with subzero temperatures. 

Ohio winters bring more than just cold weather and shorter days; they bring the possibility for winter storms that may result in a snow- and ice-covered landscape.

While it may be a winter wonderland for some, as a property manager, the hazards and potential for costly liability issues with snow and ice buildup can be a disaster waiting to happen.

If you deal with either a commercial or residential property, you’re often responsible for the nasty consequences of a winter storm.

In legal terms, snow and ice are the same as any other hazard presented on a property, and just like any other hazard, property managers can be held liable if they cause injury.

Regardless of whether you have Commercial Property Insurance and General Liability Insurance, there’s much you can do to avoid a claim in the first place.

To avoid litigation resulting from winter injuries, it is important that you’re vigilant in your snow and ice removal efforts.

Protection and Preparation

It may seem too soon to start thinking about the cold winter months, however, one of the keys to preventing snow related injuries is preparation.

Performing preventative maintenance this fall can keep you prepared for winter storms.

When it comes to sidewalk and building maintenance, being prepared starts long before any snowflakes ever start falling. It’s important during the next few months to check and repair all sidewalks and parking lots with cracks, holes and separations that could cause tripping.

Also, make sure eaves are properly installed, and check that downspouts are aimed away from walkways. If eaves leak or downspouts direct water onto walkways, snow that melts in the heat of the day has the potential to freeze and create a hazard with cooler nighttime temperatures.

Fall is a great time to fix or replace any snow removal equipment such as snow blowers, shovels, ice breakers and salt spreaders. It’s also much easier to stock up on calcium chloride now, when the prices and demand are lower.

Recognizing and Preventing Hazards

Winter brings a variety of hazards that you need to prepare for; however, slips and falls are by far the most common injury associated with winter weather conditions.

Being prepared includes keeping an eye on weather reports for impending storms, as well as making sure adequate maintenance staff is on duty to keep the sidewalks and parking lots clear.

If it’s going to be a particularly nasty storm, get the supplies and calcium chloride out ahead of time and start clearing the snow as soon as it starts falling, rather than waiting for the snow to pile up.

Be sure to stay on top of the precipitation, especially if it starts to mix, by salting and shoveling, so that ice does not have a chance to take over the sidewalk. Diligent snow and ice removal can go a long way in keeping walkways and parking lots safe.

But not all winter hazards are under foot, however…

Icicles, along with other accumulations of frozen or heavy snow above walkways and building entrances, can cause serious injury if they fall on those below. Remove icicles and other buildup as soon as possible. If it still appears to present a hazard, consider rerouting foot traffic around the area.

Transferring Responsibilities to Tenants

For smaller residential rentals, such as single family homes or duplexes, the responsibility for snow and ice removal is commonly accepted by the tenant. This is just one reason why it’s a good idea that you, as the property owner, require your tenant to have Renters Insurance, which includes liability coverage for the tenant.  In the event they fail to keep the sidewalks clear and someone is injured, the tenant, not you (that’s the hope at least) has liability coverage to pay for the damages.

To make sure responsibility is clearly established in this situation, the lease should include a provision citing the tenants as responsible for any snow and/or ice removal. This section of the lease should also establish how long after a snowfall the tenant has to clear public areas such as sidewalks, as most municipalities have laws requiring prompt snow removal.

The lease could also spell out exactly what type of Renters Insurance the tenant should have, most specifically, the limit of liability coverage that should be included.  For example, ‘Liability coverage in an amount not less than $500,000 is required to be maintained by tenant at all times’ (which is often available for less than $200 per year).  It’s important to be as specific as possible to avoid any unnecessary liability or disputes after heavy storms.

Contracting Snow Removal

Based on the size and number of properties you manage and the average snowfall in your area, you may be inclined to contract out snow removal to an independent company.

While this can save you the time and costs associated with managing snow removal yourself, it’s important that you choose wisely to avoid complicating matters.

First, make sure the contractor has sufficient resources to meet your demands. It’s important they’re onsite quickly after, or even during, a snowfall to make sure walkways and parking areas are cleared. It’s also important that they have the equipment and manpower to finish the task quickly to reduce any disruption to tenants’ lives or businesses.

Second, make sure the company you hire carries the proper insurance, covering both its operations and its employees. At a minimum, the company should have General Liability Insurance and Commercial Auto Insurance.  In addition, you should be provided with a Certificate of Insurance from the company, which also names you as an Additional Insured (we can help you with this if necessary).

The last thing you want is to end up being liable for injury or damage to someone’s property when liability is the very thing you were trying to avoid.

Also, much like the lease agreement with a residential tenant, it's important to specify the conditions and time constraints for removal in writing, as well as the limits of insurance coverage that should be maintained. When contracting any type of service, it's essential to have a written contract that will guarantee you receive the services you pay for.

Third, it’s important that sidewalks are not worsened by carelessness during their upkeep. Snow removal should be prompt and should be piled curbside in the least precarious way. It’s also important to consider how that snow will melt to prevent an ice sheet from forming.

It should be noted that hiring a snow removal service does not absolve you of liability. If the company you hire provides poor service, or simply does not show up at all, you’re still the party responsible for any injury resulting from a winter hazard.

Make sure to pick a reputable company that you can trust to do a good job, and always have a plan of action for removal if they’re unable to complete the work as quickly or effectively as you require. 

Conclusion

By making sidewalk and parking lot safety a priority, along with some preventative maintenance, you can ultimately reduce the likelihood of any type of winter weather injuries or claims.

For additional questions on your risks and exposures, or on appropriate coverages to protect you from liability or costly disputes, give us a call.

If you need some help with the requirements you should have in place for your tenants regarding Renters Insurance, or what you should be looking for from an insurance perspective when hiring a snow removal contractor, let us know. We're here to help!

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