We’ve all done it. Walking through a parking lot or on a sidewalk or driveway on a cold winter day when all of a sudden – down you go. A slippery patch of snow or ice has been your undoing and you’ve taken a fall. If you are lucky, when you get back up again the only thing injured will be your pride. Unfortunately, however, that may not always the case.
If someone, whether company employee or visitor, falls on company property, they may well be injured. And if the cause of the fall is determined to be the company’s failure to take proper precautions to rid the ground of snow and ice hazards, the company may well be liable. Hence it is important both to take appropriate steps to prevent slips and falls due to snow and ice and to be in a position to offer a strong defense against any claims that might arise from such occurrences.
Potential Legal Liabilities
A company’s legal responsibilities vis-à-vis accidents on its property relating to weather-related hazards are likely to vary by jurisdiction. Hence, rather than speak in generalities, we will look at one example, the U.K, but bear in mind that lessons learned will need to be tailored to the specific jurisdictions in which your company operates.
In the U.K., the principal piece of legislation covering workplace-related health and safety issues is the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA). HSWA and supporting regulations require employers to ensure, to an extent that is reasonably practicable, the safety and health of employees and others and to conduct suitable and sufficient risk assessments of workplace conditions to maintain a safe environment.
Of course everything turns on how statutes such as HSWA are interpreted. In this case, when companies have a duty of care regarding employees and others on their property, everything turns on what preventative steps can be regarded as “reasonably practicable” for a company to take. (A similar analysis applies in U.S. criminal law, when a defendant’s guilt must be shown to be beyond a “reasonable” doubt to obtain a guilty verdict.)
There is no definitive answer to precisely what measures a reasonable company should take in a given set of circumstances to prevent winter-related mishaps. Nevertheless, certain activities, such as paying attention to weather forecasts and responding accordingly, pre-salting and post-salting parking lots and sidewalks in the event of snowstorms, and clearing snow and ice as soon as possible from these areas after storms occur, are natural steps to take.
Carefully documenting such procedures and activities relating to fall prevention is equally important for possible future use in limiting liabilities in the event of an accident. If an accident does occur, it is also vital to record relevant contemporaneous information about it as soon as possible. This includes the time and location of the incident and names and contact information of the persons involved, the conditions in which the incident occurred (including printouts of the day’s weather forecast – such information, which is useful in legal proceedings, can be difficult to obtain at a much later date when such proceedings will likely take place), etc. The thrust of the defense will be attempting to prove that the company did indeed act in a reasonable manner in trying to prevent such slips and falls from occurring in the first place.
As is the case for all accidents, if an injury does occur it is important to notify your insurer as soon as possible after the event. The insurer should be able to provide guidance relating to the potential need for medical testing, forensic investigations of the accident site, etc. Each stage following an accident should be documented as carefully as possible so that the information can be used in defending any civil claims that may arise. Important documentation includes photographs of the incident site and (if possible) injured party, the company snow/ice clearing policy and risk assessment, written warnings to employees and others regarding known hazards, inspection logs, invoices for salt, grit, shovels, etc.
When winter comes, slips and falls often follow. Mitigating the risk of such incidents and the potential liability that may come with them is an important obligation and one that should be part of every company’s risk management strategy.
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1 http://www.hse.gov.uk/legislation/hswa.htm. Checked on February 2, 2015