If you’re a small business owner, you probably don’t have time to wander around your property looking for potential hazards. However, since you can be held liable for accidents, you can’t afford not to.
Performing a daily perimeter check is the only way to correct potential hazards before someone gets hurt. Perimeter checks might seem like a frivolous waste of payroll but are essential to prevent injuries and keep lawsuits at bay. For example, if you don’t shovel the snow off your steps and salt your sidewalks, you could be held liable when a customer falls. Snowfall hazards are serious. Performing a perimeter check each morning ensures you won’t miss potential hazards like a back walkway that needs to be cleared and salted before you open for business.
You might be thinking there’s no way you could be held liable for an injury caused by something natural like snow or ice. That’s what most people think, and for many, that belief turns out to be an expensive mistake.
What are you really liable for as a business owner?
Laws vary by state, but for the most part, you can be held liable for just about any injury someone incurs on your property. That includes liability for injuries resulting from ignoring snow and ice buildup.
Snow is a natural phenomenon. Regardless, business owners are responsible for removing it. Therefore, a business can be considered negligent when they don’t remove it.
Hazards that occur naturally don’t exempt you from liability
Just because a hazard was created by mother nature doesn’t mean you can’t be held liable for injuries. As a business owner, you’re responsible for making your premises safe for your customers and laws are catching up to reflect that. For instance, prior to 2010, Massachusetts law distinguished between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulation of ice and snow. Property owners had no premises liability for injuries caused by “natural” accumulations of ice or snow on a business owner’s property.
In 2010, the MA Supreme Judicial Court abolished this rule with Papadopoulos v. Target Corp. and ruled that the property owner must use reasonable care to maintain the property to be safe for guests. Now that MA businesses can no longer get away with ignoring hazards, the rate of incidents has reportedly dropped.
Shoveling snow is hard – here’s how to make it easier
Few people enjoy shoveling snow. If you’re lucky enough to be located in the middle of a strip of businesses, you only have a small portion of sidewalk to shovel. Still, you may need to keep shoveling and salting all day long. Who wants to do that?
Depending on city ordinances, you might be able to place a heated mat on the sidewalk that leads to your storefront. Another idea is to petition the city to install heated sidewalks so you don’t have to maintain a heated mat.
Cities that experience heavy snowfall or ice accumulation have been installing heated sidewalks that automatically melt the snow to keep sidewalks clear. It’s not cheap, but cities are recognizing the need to keep the streets walkable.
If the city says no, take an eco-friendly argument approach
If you petition the city for heated sidewalks and they say no, bring up the issue of what constantly salting the sidewalks is doing to the environment. Let them know that the salt used to melt ice eventually ends up in rivers and streams and is causing harm to wildlife.
A study performed in Ontario, where truckloads of salt are thrown down on the roads, found the salt was flowing into Frenchman’s Bay and harming the fish population. Environment Canada made a statement that salt harms wildlife, plants, water, and soil and has considered adding it to Canada’s list of toxic substances.
Salt is corrosive and causes roads and bridges to deteriorate. If your city regularly salts the roads and sidewalks, the damage is costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Installing heated sidewalks would not only prevent the harm to wildlife, but would also save the city money in terms of repairs.
Until something changes, salt and shovel
Although it’s not environmentally-friendly, you can’t afford not to salt and shovel your premises. Use the environmental angle to push your city officials to install heated sidewalks and reduce the amount of salt being used on the roads. However, don’t abandon the practice before you have another solution in place. It’s not worth a lawsuit.