Municipality May Shift Liability for Snow & Ice on Public Sidewalk

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July 25, 2009

In 1981, the legislature enacted Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-163a,[1] which not only permits a town to adopt an ordinance that requires abutting landowners to remove snow and ice on public sidewalks, but also empowers the town to shift liability to the abutting landowner for injuries caused by a violation of the ordinance.[2] This shift of liability, however, is subject to the following qualifications:

  • The shift of liability, by ordinance, only applies to liability arising from the presence of ice and snow. Municipalities remain liable for all other defects in sidewalks, i.e., cracks, debris, etc.
  • Even when the injury is caused by the presence of ice or snow, the municipality may be liable if the municipality is the entity in possession or control of the abutting land.
  • Even if the injury is caused by the presence of ice or snow, and even if the municipality is not in possession or control of the abutting land, the municipality still may be liable if the injury is the result of an affirmative act undertaken by the municipality with respect to snow and ice on sidewalks.[3]
  • Even where the municipality has possession and control of the sidewalk, the abutting landowner can be held liable for a defective condition caused by the landowner's own positive acts.[4]

Absent a specific statute or ordinance to the contrary, owners of land abutting public sidewalks are not liable for negligence to those who are injured while walking on the sidewalks as a result of natural accumulations of snow and ice. Abutting landowners may be held liable, however, if they act to change the volume or the course of the watery melt that refreezes to create the dangerous condition that causes the injury.[5]

In a recent decision, Rivers v. City of New Britain,[6] the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that when the abutting landowner was shielded from liability by sovereign immunity,[7] an ordinance adopted by a municipality under § 7-163a did not relieve the municipality for damages caused by the presence of ice or snow on the sidewalk. In Rivers, the plaintiff slipped and fell on ice and snow on a public sidewalk in New Britain. The property abutting the sidewalk was owned by the state, and used by Central Connecticut State University. The plaintiff sued both the state, under the defective highway statute § 13a-144, and the city, pursuant to § 13a-149. The state's motion to dismiss was granted, on the grounds that the sidewalk was not a state sidewalk, and therefore not part of the state highway system.

The Court reasoned that, although the language of § 7-163a was facially plain and unambiguous, its application yielded an un-workable result when the state was the abutting landowner because, under that factual scenario, neither the municipality nor the state had a duty to clear the sidewalk of ice and snow. In light of that untenable result, and because the pertinent legislative history indicated that § 7-163a was intended to authorize promulgation of municipal ordinances that shifted the responsibility for the removal of ice and snow on public sidewalks to private landowners, the court concluded that § 7-163a did not relieve a municipality of its duty of care or liability with respect to the accumulation of snow and ice on a public sidewalk when the state was the abutting landowner.

[1] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-163a provides in relevant part:

(a) Any town, city, borough, consolidated town and city or consolidated town and borough may, by ordinance, adopt the provisions of this section.

(b) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 13a-149 or any other general statute or special act, such town ... shall not be liable to any person injured ... by the presence of ice or snow on a public sidewalk unless such municipality is the owner or person in possession and control of land abutting such sidewalk.

(c) The owner or person in possession and control of land abutting a public sidewalk shall have the same duty of care with respect to the presence of ice or snow on such sidewalk abutting his property as the municipality had ... and shall be liable to persons injured in person or property where a breach of said duty is the proximate cause of said injury.

[2] See, e.g., Dreher v. Joseph, 60 Conn. App. 257 (2000) (abutting landowner is not liable for defect in sidewalk absent local ordinances shifting duty and liability to abutting landowner).

[3] It appears from a review of the legislative history of § 7-163a that legislators were concerned about the situation where a private homeowner shovels his sidewalk, and a subsequent municipal snow plow redistributes snow or ice back onto the sidewalk.

[4] See Gambardella v. Kaoud, 38 Conn. App. 355 (1995).

[5] See, e.g., Smith v. Town of Greenwich, 278 Conn. 428 (2006).

[6] Rivers v. City of New Britain, 288 Conn. 1 (2008).

[7] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-163a contains no language that expressly waives the state's sovereign immunity when the state is the abutting landowner.