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Liability Worries Fuel Snow Shoveling

Clearing snow more recommended than required.

Although Montgomery County, Maryland has a law on the books requiring homeowners to shovel sidewalks in front of their house, in Virginia it's only recommended. If someone slips though, not shoveling the sidewalk in front of a home falls under "contributory negligence."

According to Robert Dain, a lawyer in Reston, homeowners have a responsibility for the sidewalk in front of their house to some extent. Shoveling it within 24 hours is a reasonable time, he said.

"You've got a duty to clear it," he said, but at the same time, the pedestrian "has a duty not to step on it."

If the ice melts during the day and refreezes, it's a different matter. The homeowner is less responsible in that case, Dain said. In court room terms, Dain referred to snow and ice situations as "contributory negligence."

"Snow and ice are very tricky parts of the law. You're not responsible if it [snow or ice] just fell. You've got so many defenses with it, 'act of God' is a big one. I've had a lot of slip and fall cases, there's no concrete statute on this, it's case to case," he said.

WITH AN APARTMENT complex, it's different.

"You've got a duty as a land owner to clear hazards on your property that are known to you. Snow and ice are included," Dain said.

Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun County governments try to get everyone to pitch in for the common cause, but there's no law in those jurisdictions unlike in Montgomery County.

On each of the counties' Web sites, there's verbiage like "while not legally obligated, citizens and businesses are asked to help keep sidewalks safe," urging everyone in Fairfax County to take part. Arlington tries to maintain a "walkable community" and states that "snow fighting is a shared responsibility." In Loudoun, it's requested as well but individual communities might have separate rules, according to Mary L. Maguire, public information officer for Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Services.

"Different homeowners associations may require it in individual communities," Maguire said.

IN MONTGOMERY County, the law was passed two years ago, but they have yet to fine anyone for it, according to county spokesperson, Esther Bowring.

"We have a law that says 'within 24 hours of the end of the snowstorm, both businesses and residents are required to clear their sidewalks.' It's a Class C violation," Bowring said.

Tickets are issued for violators but in the first two years the law has been in effect, they haven't had to go that far. A verbal warning is as far as it's gotten. It's $50 for a first offense and $75 if it's not done within the time restraints. Citizens can complain about an unshoveled sidewalk via a form on the county Web site.

"We haven't enforced it yet," said Bowring.

Some look at it as a further intrusion of "Big Brother," nosing into homeowners' business.

"Some people may perceive it as erroneous, but we've gotten more feedback the other way," Bowring said.

In Reston, the Reston Association is responsible for shoveling the 55 miles of paths they have.

"We do all the pathways," said Reston Association member Karen Monaghan.

Brian Murphy is in the maintenance department in Reston.

"Most of the sidewalks are in the state right of way," he said.