Snow Removal: What is Your Liability?

These contracts state everything you need to know about your task as a contractor, and what areas you must be fully responsible for. If the contract states that you are responsible for all liability claims, it’s up to you to make sure that you’re covered for the possible costs that might come about. “This is a major responsibility by whoever holds it,” says Luciano. “Managers of properties, commercial buildings and shopping centers, etc., do not want to be held responsible for these occurrences, so they put everything in the contract that you sign.”

Randy Strait, president of Arctic Snow & Ice in Frankfort, Illinois, notes a few important things to remember when starting or signing a new contract. He says, “When starting a relationship with a new client, many will draw up a non-contributory contract. This means that the store or client will not contribute to or be a part of a liability claim; it is the sole responsibility of the snow removal contractor. If a customer or employee is injured, the contractor, not the client, takes the blame.”

Strait also added that in addition to placing all liability on the contractor, this agreement states that a client cannot instruct a contractor on how to service the property.

Clients cannot say where to put the snow, how much salt to use, and when to hold off service. If instructions are given to the snow removal contractor, the client assumes all responsibility for any potential slip-and-fall claims.

Proper monitoring is a major part of the snow removal business. Monitoring means knowing exactly where your crews are working, what they’re doing, what they’re using, and how they’re moving. Keeping track of all the specific details of each service is extremely beneficial, should liability claims arise. As a contractor, you have to be able to prove that you were doing what you were assigned to do, and you will need to refer back to the proper evidence to defend that.

A contractor should have a specific method, and plan for each location that’s serviced. When an employee of a snow removal contractor services a customer, he’s supposed to follow the guidelines given to him by his supervisor. When a slip-and-fall accident occurs, it’s the contractor’s responsibility to prove that his employee did exactly what he was told to do, based on the assignment.

Be mindful of how the snow is cleared. In most cases, slip-and-fall accidents happen in areas with heavy traffic, like shopping centers and sidewalks. Making sure that snow is properly cleared from these areas (pushed into proper piles, avoiding drips and re-freezing) will help avoid major slip-and-fall accidents. It is important to keep track of when the snow fell and how much accumulated.

Rick Bell, COO of Arctic Snow & Ice, says that liability lawsuits can be frivolous, but contractors have to take ownership of what happens. “It all comes down to negligence. Was the person who filed the claim, or the property involved, provided the proper services that you as a contractor are supposed to give? In most cases, people will try to say that you were negligent. But at the end of the day, you did what you were supposed to do, and you have to be able to prove that.”

When accidents occur, people generally have about two years to file a claim. However, they often wait until the very last month to file, in hopes that the landscape company did not keep the files dating back to when the accident occurred.

Therefore, a major step in ensuring that you’re safe from liability claims is keeping secure reports on all services going back at least five years. It is extremely beneficial, should any claims arise.

Mark Borst, president of Borst Landscape and Design in New Jersey, has transitioned his company into an electronic tracking system that makes an audio record of every single service his company has done. “You have to keep records of many years past, to know what that storm was like, what the weather was, and how the property was serviced. When did the snow start? When did it end? Every single detail needs to be proven if a case arises.”

Seminars on protecting yourself from liability claims are held annually by the Snowfighters Institute of Erie, Pennsylvania. They prepare you by providing analysis of your company’s documentation methods. They can help you discover what needs to be changed in your overall preparedness.

It’s a great way to learn about causes and cases in liability, and how to protect yourself as your business continues to grow. “No longer are snow contractors just guys that plow snow. They are risk managers, providing safe environments for vehicular and pedestrian traffic on customer sites. Understanding liability issues is key to a snow contractor’s ultimate success,” said John Allin, president of the Snowfighters Institute.

Be clear in all conversations. Be strict in your contracts. Make sure that your client understands your method of work so that if a claim does arise, you can refer back to the contract. This will help you get out of many lawsuits. Liability claims are more common than ever, so it’s important to be very detailed and precise when you sign or send out contracts. This will help ensure that your company is kept well-covered through the cold season.