Compared with a decade ago, snow contractors seem to be receiving slightly more slip-and-fall claims than before. According to a Lawn & Landscape survey of more than 200 snow contractors, 58 percent of snow contractors reported dealing with slip-and-fall claims, compared to 48 percent in our 2009 survey.
To some contractors like Kimberly Jewell of Snow Management Services in Denver, these numbers come as no surprise.
“One of the biggest reasons this is up is because laws are not set up in our favor,” she says. “They’re set up that we’re guilty until proven innocent. (Property owners) try to push all the liability on the snow removal contractors, and it’s gotten to the point that our industry is taking the hit for this.”
Jewell and contractors in Colorado aren’t the only ones facing this issue, either. Mark Schlutt, owner of M.A.A.C. Property Services, is based in Michigan but he services most of his snow customers in Indiana. He says the laws in Indiana allow property owners to subjugate all claims and liability on snow contractors regardless of facts.
“That went into effect about eight to 10 years ago,” he says. “You can tell a stark contrast from previous years.”
While these laws are changing slowly in some states – Illinois signed The Snow Removal Service Liability Limitation Act into effect in 2016 – the laws are still stacked against contractors in most areas, making contractors more prone to receiving slip-and-fall claims.
Considering these laws, it’s important contractors have impeccable documentation, up-to-date tools and good relationships with their insurance agents.
“The best offense is defense,” Jewell says. “Make sure you have covered all your bases and there’s nothing more you could do differently.”
Documentation is one of the biggest defenses snow contractors have when they receive slip-and-fall claims. This means contractors need to keep good notes of everything they do on a customer’s property. The following are a few details that are good to keep on record:
- Times of arrival and departure from the customer’s property
- Map of the customer’s property
- Names of workers on the site
- Temperatures and weather conditions when at a customer’s site
- Trucks that visited the site and a map of their routes
- Amount of material such as deicer or salt used on the site
“Make sure you have good paperwork,” Jewell says. “This is huge. And if you have photos on top of paperwork, that’s phenomenal.”
Contractors also advise saving paperwork for years since some slip-and-fall claims won’t be reported until years after the incident. Schlutt says M.A.A.C. Property Services saves its records for up to 20 years due to a statute of limitations in Indiana.
“We had one (claim) that came up to six years after (a juvenile) slipped and fell,” Schlutt says. “I received the claim and looked at the date and had to call my lawyer. He explained to me the rule on the statutes of limitations on juveniles (in Indiana) – the statute on a juvenile starts on their 18th birthday. A father sued us and that cost $3,500. We ended up paying it.”
To remain proactive, contractors should respond quickly whenever they receive slip-and-fall claims, even if they come weeks, months or years after the incident. Jewell says contractors need to act like “investigators” when they get claims, both providing their records to their insurance agent and finding out additional information from property managers on the case. She advises asking the property manager for a formal report of the incident.
She also listed these as some good questions to ask property managers after receiving a claim:
- What took place in the incident and what was the person doing that caused them to fall?
- Where did the incident occur?
- What time did the incident occur?
- What was the weather like when the incident occurred?
- Was the person entering or exiting the property? Were they exiting a car?
- What injuries (if any) did the person receive as a result of the fall?
- Did the person receive medical attention?
“We have a form to do this and it’s not extremely difficult to fill out,” she says. “It’s a two-page paper that describes what took place and when things were reported. If contractors don’t do anything, though, they could end up in trouble later and won’t have a leg to stand on.”
lights, cameras and signs.
Several technologies and tools can assist snow contractors to prevent slip-and-fall claims from going to trial. This past year, Snow Management Services started using Sitefotos to take good photos of customer properties. Jewell says it’s been helpful to provide supplemental photos with Snow Management Services’ records in case claims come up.
Snow Management Services has the Sitefotos program connected to all employees’ smartphones. Employees can then take photos of properties that Sitefotos is connected to and the photos are automatically saved to a cloud for managers to view in the office. The program allows Snow Management Services to take photos of weather and site conditions frequently and provides a time stamp for when photos are taken.
“It has helped in every way,” Jewell says. “From my managers, my dispatcher, my operations manager – the minute photos are taken, they’re on a computer instantly.”
Also, dash cams have proven to be helpful to New Jersey-based Unique Services Landscaping. While the company just started doing snow removal work this past winter, owner Pete Tenis says it was worth the investment to put dash cams in all snow removal vehicles to back up his records with videos and pictures.
“Something as inexpensive as a $100 (camera) with an SD card can document a lot of things,” he says. “If someone calls and complains about us not working, this documents to the property owners that we are actively working.”
At the end of each month, Tenis made a habit of saving videos from the dash cams onto an external hard drive to keep with the company’s records.
Another good tool to is placing signs around property sites to let people know when conditions are slippery. This can reduce the likelihood of slip-and-fall claims from going to trial. During the daytime signs are a good defense; however, Mike Conley, owner of K&M Service in West Virginia, provides snow removal services for a few 24-hour retail sites in West Virginia, including two Walmart stores. With customers visiting these properties all day, Conley says signs aren’t as visible to their customers at night. So, he decided to invest in flashing lights to put on one Walmart property he serves to indicate icy conditions.
“These are orange flashing lights to indicate slick conditions,” Conley says. “I put these lights up at a few properties at my own expense because I felt it was the prudent thing to do. Sure, people still slipped and fell this winter and blamed me, but we had signs in plant beds that said ‘caution,’ and flashing lights to indicate freezing temperatures on light poles and we were salting. That’s all we really can do except perhaps hold people’s hands to make sure they don’t fall.”
Relationships with insurance agents and property managers are important to maintain in the case that a contractor receives a slip-and-fall claim.
With insurance agents, Conley recommends contractors to shop around for agents who are well versed on snow removal work. He also found that it helped him to have two or three agencies to serve his business.
“Establish a relationship with two or three insurance agencies and get on a first-name basis with your agents,” he says. “And find out if they insure any other snow contractors or if they have experience in that because if they don’t understand the ramifications of slip-and-fall claims, that could be an issue. Also, find out if their underwriters have had experience in it. If they do insure people in snow removal, ask (the other companies) of their experiences with them.”
In addition to establishing a relationship with insurance agents, Conley advises being on good terms with property managers. He says he had a property manager who wanted more information on why his parking lot was icier than usual one winter, so Conley connected with him and provided him literature on freezing points and how deicing agents work. He says answering a property manager’s questions and constantly communicating with them in the winter is key.
“Let the customers know you’re going to be proactive, not just buying salt and throwing it down,” he says. “Show them that you’re educating yourself with associations like ASCA (the Accredited Snow Contractors Association) being professional. And communicate, even when customers are mad to help them calm down.”