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Skating Through Snow and Ice Mishaps - A Primer in Maryland’s Premises Liability Law

January 27, 2021
January 27, 2021

The primary consideration for any snow and ice premises liability matter is determining whether there is a responsibility to clear it, and upon whom does such responsibility fall.  In Maryland, whether or not there is a responsibility depends on who owns or controls the property abutting the public sidewalk, and whether they caused or contributed to the creation of the hazardous condition through negligent act(s) which ultimately lead to injury of another.

Generally, an owner or occupant of property, whether residential or commercial, has no duty to pedestrians to maintain the public sidewalk abutting their land free from the natural accumulation of snow and ice.  The owner or occupant is not liable to pedestrians for failure to clear the abutting sidewalk even where a statute or ordinance requires that the pavement be kept free of snow and ice.  Likewise, an abutting landowner is not liable for clearing the public sidewalk of snow and ice, unless through their negligence a new element of danger or hazard, other than one caused by natural forces, is added to the use of the sidewalk by a pedestrian.

In examining what constitutes the creation of a new element of danger as opposed to one caused by natural forces, let's look at a case addressed by the Court of Appeals.  A bowling alley owner had his employee clear a path on the abutting public sidewalk for those seeking to gain access to his establishment.  Thereafter, a patron slipped and fell on the sidewalk which had become icy.  The court stated that the slush on the sidewalk, which later froze into ice, may have been the result of the thawing and freezing of the snow piled along the sides of the path, or the result of snow having been tracked onto the path by pedestrians.  Either way, there was no evidence that the slush was on the path as a result of the work of removing the snow had been negligently performed.  The mere fact that water from melting snow, which had been cleared from the public sidewalk and piled along the side of the path, flowed over the cleared portion and froze was not sufficient to show that the blowing alley, in clearing the sidewalk in the manner it did, created a nuisance or artificially brought about a condition which increased or changed the flow of water at the place where the patron fell. Therefore, they were not liable for the patron’s injury.

Maryland imposes a different duty upon municipal corporations, which is a more stringent standard.  Under Maryland law, a municipal corporation owes a duty to persons lawfully using public sidewalks (and streets) under its control to make such public walkways reasonably safe for passage.  However, this duty is not an absolute one making the municipality an insurer of safe passage.  In order to hold a municipal corporation liable for injuries caused by its alleged negligence in failing to keep sidewalks under its control free of dangerous conditions including accumulations of ice and snow, one must show that the municipality had either actual or constructive notice of such condition. The mere fact that the municipality knows of a heavy snowfall, or a freeze after a thaw, does not ordinarily include notice of particular danger at any point.  The municipality must have actual or constructive notice of the particular defect or obstruction.

To balance the more stringent standard applied to municipal corporations for snow and ice liability, Maryland instituted a shorter statute of limitations.  Though there are exceptions to this rule, generally, one must file a Notice of Claim against the municipality within one year to preserve their claim.  On the other hand, the statute of limitations against other individuals and entities is three years.

Even if one can prove negligence on the part of a public or private individual or entity, to recover, one must not have contributed to the incident through their own negligence, or assumption of the risk.  Maryland, for now, continues to employ the strict contributory negligence model.  This model provides that if one who was injured shares even the slightest amount of fault, even one percent, is not permitted to recover for their injuries at all.

Overall, the current law in Maryland appears to favor property owners over municipalities, and both over injured persons.  For private owners, if you are going to clear abutting public sidewalks of snow and ice, it is in your interest to do it properly.  If you are a municipality, the focus should be on not creating hazardous conditions, and when notified of same, to address it with reasonable speed and efficiency.