Missoula’s winter can bring about challenging conditions with unpredictable snowfall and icy surfaces, posing potential hazards for both pedestrians and drivers. For business owners, understanding your responsibilities in clearing snow from your property is crucial, and for customers, knowing your rights is equally important.
Sidewalk snow removal obligations
In accordance with the Missoula Municipal Code (MMC 12.16.30), property owners, whether residential or commercial, must ensure that adjacent sidewalks are free of snow and ice by 9:00 a.m. the day after a snowfall. The code emphasizes responsible snow disposal, prohibiting the shoveling of snow into streets, bike lanes, parking lanes, or covering fire hydrants.
Failure to clear sidewalks may prompt the city to take action at the owner’s expense. The city follows a structured procedure for addressing complaints. For the first complaint, the property owner and tenant, if applicable, receive a Notice of Violation Letter. For the second complaint, a Final Notice of Violation Letter is issued, indicating the city’s intent to clear snow at the owner’s expense for this and future violations. No further notice is given. The city contractor removes snow, and the property owner receives a bill.
Snow and ice premises liability
Business owners must be aware of premises liability concerning snow and ice accidents. In Montana, property owners can be held responsible for injuries resulting from unsafe conditions. Negligence on the part of the property owner forms the basis for premises liability cases.
Visitors fall into three categories, invitees, licensees and trespassers, with varying degrees of owed duty of care. Business owners have the highest duty toward invitees, a lower duty to licensees and the lowest duty to trespassers. Natural accumulations of snow and ice, such as those falling from roofs or trees, may lead to liability depending on several factors, including foreseeability, preventability and the level of risk posed.
Reducing liability risks
Business owners can take proactive steps to minimize liability risks. Adhere to the city’s ordinance by clearing sidewalks promptly. Stay informed about weather conditions and apply deicer or sand to prevent ice buildup. Remove snow or ice falling from roofs or trees on the property. Use signs or cones to alert visitors to slippery or uneven surfaces.
Maintain records of snow removal efforts, including receipts, invoices, photos and logs. Consider hiring licensed, insured and reputable snow removal services, checking contracts for liability limitations or exclusions.
By following these guidelines, business owners can foster a safer environment and potentially avoid legal complications. However, if businesses fail in their duty and customers are injured, a premises liability lawsuit may be appropriate.