Streets & Alleys FAQ 2
Whose responsibility is it to remove snow and ice from a sidewalk?
The responsibility for keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice rests, by statute, upon the municipal board of public works or the committee or officer designated to handle street or sidewalk matters. See Wis. Stat. sec. 66.0907(5) and (10). This same provision also recognizes, however, that the abutting property owner has the primary obligation for shoveling sidewalks. With regard to accumulations of snow and ice, Wis. Stat. sec. 893.83(1) provides that "[no] action may be maintained against a city, village, town or county to recover damages for injuries sustained by reason of an accumulation of snow or ice upon any bridge or highway, unless the accumulation existed for 3 weeks (case law establishes the three week period applies only to "natural" accumulations and is inapplicable where the municipality itself has created an "artificial" icy condition. The courts have interpreted "natural" accumulations broadly to limit suits against municipalities. Natural accumulations include snow piled on a curb near the sidewalk after clearing, a buildup of ice from water which flowed from properly working drains, as well as accumulations of snow on uncleared areas. Artificial accumulations include ice formed due to a city's failure to provide adequate drainage for a road; ice which formed on a sidewalk where firefighters had discharged water, and ice formed due to leaking from defective gutters and drainpipes). The term "highway" includes sidewalks.
Additional language added to 893.83 by 2011 Wis. Act 132 provides that any "action to recover damages for injuries sustained by reason of an accumulation of snow or ice that has existed for 3 weeks or more upon any bridge or highway is subject to sec. 893.80." Wisconsin Statute sec. 893.80(4) provides municipalities with broad immunity for discretionary acts. Clearly, deciding how to handle snow and ice removal involves the exercise of discretion. Major weather events, like large snowfalls and icestorms, can command finite municipal resources and wreak havoc on the municipal budget. With constraints imposed by budgets, available manpower and equipment, municipalities must decide how available resources are best allocated. Which roads should be plowed first? How and when should sidewalks be cleared? These decisions are largely discretionary because they involve the exercise of choice or judgment.
Municipalities can enact ordinances requiring abutting property owners to keep sidewalks free of ice and snow, and can impose forfeitures on those property owners who fail to do so. Additionally, if a municipality is required to clear an icy or snowy sidewalk because the abutting property owner fails to do so, the municipality can charge abutting property owners the expense of clearing in front of the lot or parcel. The amount can be imposed as a special charge for current services. If the amount is not paid, it can be placed as a lien on the property. Although municipalities can enact ordinances requiring abutting property owners to clear snow and ice from sidewalks, they cannot shift liability to the abutting property owner. See Hagerty v. Village of Bruce, 82 Wis.2d 208, 262 N.W.2d 102 (1978).