Liability FAQ 1

If a municipal ordinance requires property owners to remove snow and ice from sidewalks abutting their property, are the property owners then liable for injuries which result from a failure to remove snow or ice from a sidewalk?

No. Although a municipality can by ordinance require property owners to remove snow and ice from sidewalks abutting their property, the long-standing rule in Wisconsin is that maintenance of a municipal sidewalk is a non-delegable duty and therefore, the municipality rather than the landowner is responsible for injuries caused by traveling on a snowy or icy municipal sidewalk. See McCoats v. Threshermen's Mutual Ins. Co., Case No. 96-0715 (Ct. App. Jan 14, 1997, unpublished), citing Walley v. Patake, 271 Wis. 530, 540, 74 N.W.2d 130, 135 (1956) and Hagerty v. Village of Bruce, 82 Wis.2d 208, 213-14, 262 N.W.2d 102, 104 (1978).

Section 66.0907(5) and (10) require the board of public works or other municipal officers designated to handle street or sidewalk matters to “keep the sidewalks … clear of snow and ice in all cases where the owners or occupants of abutting lots fail to do so ….” Thus, it is ultimately the municipality’s responsibility.  However, municipalities are afforded some protection by Wis. Stat. sec. 893.83, which prohibits an action for damages for injuries sustained because of a natural snow or ice accumulation unless the accumulation existed for three weeks.  Section 893.83 also makes clear that actions for damages caused by accumulation of snow or ice existing more than 3 weeks are subject to sec. 893.80 which affords municipalities immunity for discretionary decisions and limits damages. If a resident fails to remove snow and ice as required by ordinance, that resident is subject to a forfeiture if the ordinance imposes one, and the municipality can perform the work itself and charge the property owner for the removal as a special charge under sec. 66.0627 or as a special tax under sec. 66.0907(5).