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Do property owners have a duty to shovel their sidewalk?

Am I responsible if someone falls on the sidewalk in front of my house?

If you reside in a property with a sidewalk adjacent to it, at some point a slip and fall accident may occur. When winter comes, that possibility is increased.  This article will give a quick overview of things to be aware of when dealing with sidewalks located close to your home.

What duties does a property owner or tenant have to a sidewalk adjacent to their property?

A sidewalk located adjacent to your property is not owned by you but by the municipality.  This is true of the boulevard land as well. The municipality is responsible for the repair and maintenance of their property.  There is no common law duty of an adjacent property owner to keep municipal property clear of snow or ice.

That being said, most municipalities have in place by-laws requiring you to clear the snow and ice within a certain time period.  Ajax and Whitby require home occupants to clear the snow within 24 hours after the accumulation, while Oshawa requires you to have the sidewalk cleared by midnight on the day following the accumulation.   Failure to clear the sidewalk may result in fines.  Additionally, the expense of the City having to send municipal services to clear the sidewalk will be charged to you.

While responsibility for any falls that occur on the sidewalk rests with the municipality, your failure to comply with by-laws, may encourage liability claims against you personally.  We live in litigious times. Having a claim made against you is expensive and upsetting. You, or your insurance company would be required to retain a lawyer to defend any such claims even if you have no ultimate responsibility.  

Are there ever any circumstances where the property owner may be held liable for a sidewalk that was not properly cleared of snow and ice?

Claims have been successful against business owners who failed to adequately clear a municipal sidewalk when, by placement of their entry, pedestrian traffic across the area was required to enter the business.  The business was found to have taken occupancy of the sidewalk and therefore the Occupiers Liability Act was found to apply.  Occupiers do have a duty of care to persons on their property in Ontario, even if that property is owned by the City.  

Additionally, if your actions have caused a dangerous situation you could be found at fault.   For example, if your gutters overhang and drip water onto the sidewalk, which later freezes causing a build-up of ice on the sidewalk, a pedestrian slipping on that ice would be in a position to hold both the municipality and you, as property owner/occupier, liable.

What can you do to protect both the public and yourself?

Comply with the municipal by-laws.  Keep your sidewalk free of snow and ice as much as possible given fluctuating winter weather conditions. If water is collecting on the sidewalk and subsequently freezing on a regular basis, make sure the water is not accumulating by reason of anything under your control.  Report damage or problems to the City so that repairs can be made.

You have a duty of care to persons on your property.   As your property is immediately adjacent to the sidewalk, while you are not obliged by reason of ownership or occupation to ensure that the sidewalk is free of snow and ice, the same standards should be applied to avoid potential claims against you and your family.

If you are aware of a serious personal injury sustained on a sidewalk adjacent to your property, obtain legal advice as soon as possible.  You can do so by scheduling a phone or in-person appointment with Michelle Brown.