This time of year the District's roads and sidewalks may be treacherous to pedestrians with the presence of ice and snow. This is particularly a hazard to senior citizens and individuals with certain physical disabilities. Clearing sidewalks improves the safety of the community. Falls can result in serious harm such as traumatic brain injuries, broken bones, or back or neck injuries. What potential liability can D.C. residents face if someone incurs an injury from a slip and fall on the sidewalk?
Under common law, a property owner was not required to clear snow or ice from their sidewalk to benefit pedestrians. Today, slip and fall injuries that occur upon someone's property typically fall under the legal concept of premises liability. The property owner or controller is to maintain it in a reasonably safe manner. The owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care to maintain safety and to correct and/or warn those on their property about the existence of any dangerous conditions.
The D.C. Code states that in the first eight-hour period of daylight following such a weather event, the owner or occupier is to remove the dangerous accumulation from the entire width of the sidewalk up to 36 inches. On public property, the Mayor of D.C. is responsible for doing the same for sidewalks, crosswalks, and other public thoroughfares to allow for reasonably safe travel.
When an owner or occupier fails to remove accumulations of snow and ice from their sidewalks in a manner that allows for safe travel, it will be the responsibility of the District to do so in a reasonable and practical time period. If the government intervenes to clear dangerous accumulations from the sidewalk, they will pursue financial reimbursement. The owner will be responsible for the necessary expenses and also face a $25 penalty.
The provisions clearly impose a duty on the landowners to clear the snow and ice; however, it does not specifically reference liability stemming from an injury caused by the failure in executing this duty. The District does not guarantee safety for those walking on streets or sidewalks. If no defect exists on the surface itself, the government cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from natural accumulations of snow and ice. On several occasions, the courts have ruled that individuals do not have standing to sue for injuries resulting from such natural weather conditions.
However, there are exceptions may apply in these situations. In the case of Murphy v. Schwankhaus in 2007, the D.C. Court of Appeals heard a case where the plaintiff brought an injury claim against the property owner. Here, a tenant had attempted to clear the snow and ice, but was alleged to have made the conditions more dangerous. The plaintiff did not prevail in this matter because it could not be determined if the tenant's actions had truly worsened the conditions. The case acknowledged that the court is receptive to a potential liability claim when the owner or occupier creates conditions that “increase the danger”.