Winter in Colorado is sure to bring cold weather, snow, and urgent phone calls about broken water lines and slip-and-fall accidents on common areas. The problems usually start when the temperature begins to warm up after a cold spell or heavy snowfall. Water suddenly streams out of broken pipes, or snow melts and then freezes when the temperature drops at night. Whatever the circumstances, managers and board members can attest to the amount of work involved responding to owners, sorting through damages and injuries, dealing with insurance, and trying to understand legal obligations for water and slip-and-fall incidents. Most of us would love to find a magic wand that we could wave to make these problems disappear. Unfortunately, magic is not a reliable solution.

Associations can best position themselves for dealing with slip-and-fall situations by planning ahead and communicating with owners along the way. If your association is not sure what responsibility it has to remove snow and ice hazards from common areas, here are some risk management steps to help.

Review the association’s governing documents to determine responsibilities for snow removal. Different communities have different responsibilities, and your documents give direction. A condominium community may have the general obligation to remove snow from the common elements, while townhome documents may only require the association to take care of parking lots. A failure to comply with the covenants could result in claims of breach by the association, so confirming responsibilities up-front is crucial.

Determine the appropriate standards to apply to property within the community. Local laws may require snow removal within a certain time after snowfall stops. In addition, certain types of communities may have higher standards. For example, public-access recreation facilities and associations that qualify as housing for older persons may require or choose higher standards of care. In general, associations should evaluate how best to carry out their duties in a reasonably safe and prudent manner.

Analyze problem spots and risks around the community. Does your community have shaded areas where snow and ice linger? Are steps a main feature throughout the community? What about drainage issues that allow water to pool, leading to mini skating rinks? For known problems, associations should either remedy the situation, mitigate its impact, or, at the very least, alert users to the hazards.

Contract with a professional, insured/bonded snow removal vendor that provides reliable, quality service. A professional vendor can help determine the best methods to remove snow and minimize hazards around your community. Snow contractors generally commit to begin work when the snow reaches a certain depth (and the chosen depth affects the contract price) and offer options for different ice melt products and ways of removing snow. Consult with the vendor about effective and efficient ways to address your association’s property. Vendors that work with community associations on a regular basis may even anticipate your questions and concerns. Remember that association boards can reduce liability by relying on professional guidance when making decisions.

Prepare backup measures for hazardous or extraordinary situations. For properties that present special, known hazards, extra attention may be required. Problem areas may warrant signs that warn residents and their guests of the conditions or cordoning-off of the hazard. Ice melt or sand buckets around the community, with simple directions for use, can allow residents to address slick spots in the moment—just don’t forget to create a plan for re-filling the buckets.

Communicate with owners. Before snow starts falling, associations can educate owners about association and owner responsibilities for snow removal. Things to communicate include providing owners with an overview of how the association will carry out its duties, what the vendor will do, how and when owners should report problems, alerts about hazard areas, and steps resident can take to help minimize risks around the property. During the winter season, repeat reminders of all the same information, with contact information, can keep the expectations and protocols clear. Managers can reiterate the association’s approach as needed, but should also remain attentive to resident concerns that could create liability for their communities.

Evaluate and modify the approach as you learn more about the property. Changing winter conditions can stress property improvements and reveal new issues. Contract terms may not suffice to keep the property safe. Or a season of big storms may blow the association’s already-strapped budget. Owners need more information to understand what they can expect from the association and what role they can play when snow starts falling. Whatever happens along the way, associations should determine if a change of course is needed mid-season, or if the lessons learned should factor into the next year’s budget and contract cycle.

As with all of the information on this website, these steps do not substitute for legal advice. If you have specific questions about your community, or an incident involving your association, contact one of our attorneys for legal advice.