Dealing with snow and ice on streets and sidewalks

December 9, 2021

MRSC Insight


Winter has arrived. In some places, snow can fall and walking can become dangerous. What can or should a city or county do to deal with snow and ice buildup on sidewalks and streets?

Who is responsible for the streets and sidewalks?

Several court decisions have established that a public body cannot be held responsible for damage or injury caused by snow and ice if it has not had a reasonable opportunity to clear the streets or sidewalks.

Here are some previous questions the MRSC has received regarding municipal liability for streets and sidewalks.

Is a municipality responsible for injuries caused by snow to a person if it has not removed snow and ice from sidewalks?

In most cases, no. The 1978 decision of the Washington State Court of Appeal in Nelson vs. Tacoma, 19 Wn. App. 807, 808, quotes the general rule of the legal treaty, McQuillin’s Law of Municipal Corporations:

Normally, snow or ice on a sidewalk should not be classified as a dangerous obstacle such that a municipality is required to remove. It is generally accepted that a natural and ordinary accumulation of snow and ice on sidewalks does not create any municipal liability for the injuries it causes, unless in this regard the municipality shows some negligence in failing to comply with its obligation to take ordinary precautions to maintain its sidewalks in good condition. condition for usual travel.

Municipal liability can be incurred if the snow-covered or icy sidewalk itself was defective, or if the ice or snow, formed in ridges, drifts or mounds, constituted a dangerous obstacle to traffic, the element of knowledge having been demonstrated.

One of the first cases in Washington to address the issue was Calder vs. Walla Walla, 6 Wash. 377, 378 (1893), where the State Supreme Court stated:

The city is not responsible for accidents caused by the simple slippage caused by ice on the promenade. If the ice is not so rough and uneven, or so rounded, or at such a slope as to obstruct it, and make it unsafe for travel with the exercise of due care, there is no no liability.

However, this means that a local government has no responsibility. In Holland v. Auburn, 161 Wash. 594 (1931), the city was held responsible for a pedestrian who was injured when he slipped and fell on a sidewalk on which a mound of ice had formed for several days. The court found that the number of days that this ice had formed gave the city enough time to notice (and treat) this dangerous condition.

What should a municipality do when snow and ice accumulate in the streets?

The duty of a local government to combat ice storms on streets or roads is discussed in Leroy v. State, 124 Wn. App. 65, 68-69 (2004), which states:

The state has an ordinary duty of care to make its roads reasonably safe for ordinary travel. This obligation is conditional, however, because it only comes into play when the State is aware of the danger in question and has time to correct it. In short, according to Niebarger v. City of Seattle, [53 Wash. 2d 228 (1958)] the state “must have (a) notice of a dangerous situation which it did not create, and (b) a reasonable opportunity to rectify it before liability arises for negligence for breach of duty to guard. safe streets.

In Wright v. Kennewick, 62 Wn.2d 163, 167 (1962), the court concluded that the city was not responsible in a wrongful death lawsuit, stating:

The proof here was that the snow had been on the ground for no more than 2 days and that the most recent crust of ice had only formed a few hours earlier. It is clear that the city had not had a reasonable opportunity to remove it.

And finally, in Bird vs. Walton, 69 Wn. App. 366, 368-69 (1993), the court concluded that the Washington State Department of Transportation had fulfilled its obligation to correct a dangerous situation (i.e., an icy highway) because:

Department maintenance workers were … almost continuously trying to sand the road, until the time of the accident, despite dense fog and dangerous driving conditions.

Help owners

Homeowners can play an important role in keeping sidewalks accessible in their city or county. Here are some questions the MRSC has received regarding owners and liability.

Can an ordinance or resolution be passed requiring landowners to keep sidewalks free of snow and ice?

Yes, a county or city can pass an ordinance or resolution requiring homeowners to remove snow and ice from sidewalks adjacent to their home or business. The police power set out in article 11, section 11 of the state constitution would support such regulation. See AGO 1956 n ° 195 or Rivett v. Tacoma, 123 Wn.2d 573 (1994).

If the local government passes an ordinance requiring neighboring landlords to remove snow and ice from sidewalks adjoining their home or business, can it be held responsible for non-compliance with this order?

Usually no. Under the doctrine of public obligation, a breach of an obligation established by law is not actionable unless the obligation is owed to a particular person rather than to the public at large. . See, in general, Taylor vs. Stevens County, 111 Wn.2d 159 (1988), and Honcoop v. State, 111 Wn.2d 182 (1988).


Many local governments maintain web pages, brochures, or other information dedicated to informing the public about snow and ice removal in their jurisdiction. These can address a number of things, from reviewing the local government’s snow / ice control plan to reminding owners and business owners of their sidewalk clearance obligations. Here are some examples:

Our Snow and Ice Control topic page has examples of orders, guidelines, parking restrictions and other policies collected from state jurisdictions.

These issues can be slippery. Contact our consultants through Ask MRSC if you have any additional questions.

MRSC is a private, non-profit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible Washington State government agencies can use our free, one-to-one MRSC inquiry service to get answers to legal, political, or financial questions.

About MRSC Insight

MRSC Insight reflects the best writings of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special-purpose districts.


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