The winter months bring more than just cold weather and shorter days; they bring winter storms that result in a snow- and ice-covered property. While it may be a winter wonderland for some, as a property manager, snow and ice buildup means lots of hazards with the potential for costly liability.
If you deal with either commercial or residential property, you are responsible for the side effects of winter. Just like with any other hazard, the property manager can be held liable if they cause injury due to snow and ice. To avoid litigation resulting from winter injuries, follow our tips below to reduce liability and to maintain safe property even in the dead of winter.
Recognizing and Preventing Hazards
Winter brings many hazards that you need to prepare for as a property manager. Slips and falls are by far the most common injury. Diligent snow and ice removal can go far in keeping walkways and parking lots safe at the properties you manage. Remove snow quickly after snowfalls, and salt regularly to keep ice from building up.
Performing preventative maintenance in the summer and fall can also keep you prepared for winter storms. Make sure eaves are properly installed, and check that downspouts are aimed away from walkways. If eaves leak or downspouts direct water onto walkways, snow that melts in the heat of the day has the potential to freeze and create a hazard with cooler nighttime temperatures.
Inspect Property for Icicles and Ice Dams
Not all winter hazards are under foot. Icicles, along with other accumulations of frozen or heavy snow above walkways and building entrances, can cause serious injury if they fall on someone below. Remove icicles and other buildup as soon as possible. If it still appears to present a hazard, consider rerouting foot traffic around the area.
Ice dams form when snows melt on your roof then re-freezes before it reaches the roof’s edge. If the cycle repeats consistently, an ice dam forms and water collects behind it. As the water pools, it will collect and cause expensive water damage to your roof and interior of the building. Prevent ice dams from forming by keeping attics well ventilated and sealing any air leaks to prevent warm air leakages. If your property needs a new roof, consider using an ice shield under the shingle to further prevent ice dams from forming.
Properly Insulate Pipes
One of the top winter weather nightmares for property managers are frozen pipes. Luckily, they can be prevented with planning and insulation. First, disconnect any outdoor hoses and faucets. Shut them off completely using an indoor valve and allow the excess water to drain out. If any water is left in the pipes, it could freeze and burst when the temperatures drop. Second, wrap pipes in heat tape or thermostatically-controlled heat cables to prevent them from freezing. It’s also a good idea to seal any leaks with caulk or insulation, especially pipes that are close the exterior or the building.
Monitor Structural Defects
In Massachusetts, it’s the responsibility of the landlord to maintain all structural elements of a building so that is habitable for tenants. Of course in the winter, wind, snow, and rain can wreak havoc on the roof, foundation, windows, and any other part of your property that is exposed to the elements. Regularly check the basements and attics of your properties to ensure that leaks or cracks are not allowing air or water to enter the property.
Contracting Snow Removal
Based on the size and number of properties you manage and the average snowfall in your area, you may consider contracting out snow removal work to a company. While this can save you the time and costs associated with managing snow removal yourself, it is important that you choose wisely to avoid complicating matters.
First, make sure the contractor has sufficient resources to meet your demands. It is important that they can be onsite quickly after, or even during, a snowfall to make sure walkways and parking areas are cleared. It is also important that they have the equipment and manpower to finish the task quickly to reduce any disruption to tenants’ lives or businesses.
Second, make sure the company you hire carries the proper insurance, covering both its operations and its employees. The last thing you want is to end up being liable for a worker’s injury when liability for injury is the very thing you were trying to avoid. Also, much like the lease agreement with a residential tenant, it is important to specify the conditions and time constraints for removal in writing. When contracting any type of service, it is essential to have a written contract that will guarantee you receive the services you pay for.
It should be noted that hiring a removal service does not absolve you of liability. If the company you hire provides poor service, or simple does not show up at all, you are still the party responsible for any injury resulting from a winter hazard. Make sure to pick a reputable company that you can trust to do a good job, and always have a plan of action for removal if they are unable to complete the work as quickly or effectively as you require.
Transferring Responsibilities to Tenants
For smaller residential rentals, such as single family homes or duplexes, the responsibility for snow and ice removal is commonly accepted by the tenant. To reduce your liability, include a provision in the lease explaining that the tenant is responsible for any snow and ice removal. This section of the lease should also establish how long after a snowfall the tenant has to clear public areas such as sidewalks, as most municipalities have laws requiring prompt snow removal. Be specific as possible in your leases to avoid any unnecessary liability or disputes after heavy storms.
For additional questions on your risks as a property manager, or on appropriate coverages to protect you from liability, give us a call at (800) 333-7234 or contact us on our website.
This Risk Insights is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2011 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.