Black Ice: Are You Responsible for Keeping It Off Your Property?

Preventing black ice
Preventing black ice

Black ice is a scary sounding term, and for good reason: It leads to car accidents, injuries, and a fear of walking outside in the winter. But are you responsible to clear this invisible menace if it's on your property? If someone gets injured slipping in front of your house or on your property, the short answer is: You are responsible.

Corie Russell, who slipped on black ice while visiting her mother several years ago, described her experience to AOL Real Estate: "I was walking down the front porch steps and little did I know, they were covered by an invisible layer of ultra-slippery ice," Russell explained. "I flew through the air like some sort of movie scene and landed on the bottom step." She ended up in the ER with pain so severe that she went into shock. She was immobile for a few days, and even had to spend Christmas on a couch and miss work. But nothing was permanently damaged, and Russell made a full recovery.

"I was young and recovered without a severe injury, but for a child or elderly person, an ice injury could cause serious complications," she said.

While laws differ across the country, there are a few general rules to follow. The most important: If you know about ice and snow on your property, clean it up. According to attorney John Braun, who focuses on real estate and construction law, homeowners have a common-law duty to "mitigate risks to others on their property," including those caused by Mother Nature.

If you live in a place that frequently gets a lot of snow, there will likely be more specific statutes regarding clearing of snow and ice. Braun points out that in Minneapolis, single-family houses are required to clear sidewalks in front of their homes within 24 hours of a snowfall.

One distinction, however, is black ice. According to personal injury attorney Thomas J. Simeone, "Black ice is particularly troublesome for property owners." While ignorance of the existence of black ice could be a valid defense for a homeowner (not the case with business owners), it's also easier for the plaintiff to argue that they didn't see the ice that they were slipping on. An owner cannot argue that the defendant saw (or should have seen) the ice.

But either way, once a homeowner is aware that there is ice, black or white, on their property, it is their duty to help avoid injury. Simeone recommends either removing the ice (e.g., using salt), or putting sand on it to make it less slippery. A homeowner can even put up a warning sign if there is an alternate path around the ice.

But what happens if you fail to do your duty, and someone does slip and fall on your property? Braun explains that, because this type of lawsuit is so common (it has it's own name, 'slip and fall'), the vast majority of them are settled out of court. Typically it costs about $5,000 to make the case "go away." For many homeowners, their insurance covers this. While they would have to pay some money, they would not need to cover the whole thing.

In the case of renters, it gets even more convoluted. As a general rule, if it is a one-unit household, the resident is responsible to clear the ice; if there's more than one unit, it's the responsibility of either the landlord or one of the tenants (by agreement). Renters insurance could also cover the cost of slip-and-fall cases. But this differs around the country, and you should speak to your landlord and review your renters insurance policy to be clear.

What can you do to prevent these types of accidents?

First step, if temperatures fall below 32 degrees, make sure to salt your sidewalks. This helps prevent ice from forming in the first place. Especially after a snow, shoveling alone might not be enough. If anything, it only adds to the illusion that a sidewalk is safe to walk on.

If you are opposed to adding salt to sidewalks, a more natural approach might be to add sand. This can make black ice more visible and less slippery.

Taking these precautions not only will protect people's safety but might protect you from lawsuits.

See also:
Home Insurance: What's Covered, What Isn't
Homeowner's Storm-Damaged Ceiling Collapses During TV Interview
Home Insurance for Hurricanes and Floods

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Black Ice: Hidden Danger on Sierra Roadways
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