Snow and Ice Again

In Michigan the governmental body having jurisdiction has a duty to “maintain the highway in reasonable repair”. In Michigan “highway” specifically includes "sidewalks." Under the statutes and relevant court decisions the “duty” is severely limited.

A few years ago a fatal accident occurred in Lansing along Saginaw. As stated in the Court of Appeals opinion:

Chantell Buckner and LaQuata Wright were walking westbound along Saginaw Street in the city of Lansing. The girls had attempted to walk on the city's sidewalk on the north side of Saginaw Street, but their way was obstructed and made impassable because of an accumulation of snow and ice that resulted from the city's snowplowing on the closely adjoining street. Not being able to use the sidewalk, Buckner and Wright walked on the roadway next to the curb and against the traffic flow. They were struck by an eastbound car; Buckner died as a result of the accident and Wright suffered substantial injuries. [Estate of Buckner v City of Lansing, 274 Mich App, 737 NW2d 775 (2008).

The "highway exception" to governmental immunity (MCL 691.1402(1)) provides:

[E]ach governmental agency having jurisdiction over a highway shall maintain the highway in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel. A person who sustains bodily injury or damage to his or her property by reason of failure of a governmental agency to keep a highway under its jurisdiction in reasonable repair and in a condition reasonably safe and fit for travel may recover the damages suffered by him or her from the governmental agency.

In the Buckner case at the Michigan Supreme Court the Court stated:

A governmental agency with jurisdiction over a highway has the duty to “maintain the highway in reasonable repair.” In order to show that a governmental agency failed to “maintain [a] highway in reasonable repair,” a plaintiff must demonstrate that a “defect” exists in the highway.Nawrocki, supra at 158; Haliw v City of Sterling Hts, 464 Mich 297, 309 n 9 (2001).

Because the accumulation, by itself, of ice and snow on a sidewalk, regardless of whether it accumulated through natural causes or otherwise, does not constitute a “defect” in the sidewalk, plaintiffs have not shown that defendant violated its duty to “maintain” the sidewalk “in reasonable repair.” Thus, there is no need for this Court to address the issue of proximate causation. Accordingly, MCL 691.1402(1) bars plaintiffs’ suit. We REMAND this case to the Ingham Circuit Court for entry of an order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and for further proceedings not inconsistent with this order. [Estate of Buckner v City of Lansing, 480 Mich1243, 747 NW2d 231 (2008)]

Accordingly, a city has little or no risk of tort liability for plowing snow onto a sidewalk.

In general, while property owners/occupants also have little risk of tort liability for failing to shovel snow or remove ice, due to “natural accumulation”, “open and obvious” and other applicable legal doctrines or principles, whether a property owner/occupant may have liable under a local ordinance requiring snow shoveling is a very different question.

Buckner COA PDF

Buckner Supreme Court pdf