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Snow removal law may face test

Shovelers brace for 1st big storm since SJC ruling

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / December 25, 2010

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The first snows of the season have brought Massachusetts residents a new headache to go along with the usual back-straining chores of shoveling the white stuff, chipping ice off the walkway, and laying down a blanket of rock salt.

Thanks to a Supreme Judicial Court decision this year, property owners now can be held liable for injuries that are linked to any snow and ice on their land, regardless of whether the conditions were caused by nature or a city plow.

Besides potentially more work for shovelers, the July ruling could lead to more lawsuits, according to David White, a Boston attorney and former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

“I think there will be more claims because there are more injuries that are compensable,’’ White said. “But by the same token, because homeowners and commercial property owners are more aware of the risk of not taking any action, they’re taking better care.’’

The new laws could be tested tomorrow as a possible storm heads for New England. Yesterday, meteorologists were still unsure of where the storm would hit and its severity. However, it is fairly certain that the southeast ern part of the state has the best chance of experiencing precipitation, said Eleanor Vallier-Talbot, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton.

Depending on how strong the winds are, northeast-facing beaches all along Cape Cod run the risk of experiencing some flooding to coincide with high tide early Monday morning.

On top of their added responsibilities, property owners in several Massachusetts communities, including Boston, Lynn, and Worcester, are required by local ordinances to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses.

City Hall, however, still bears the ultimate responsibility for injuries that occur on those sidewalks, White said. For that reason, communities that compel residents to shovel the sidewalks have financial and legal incentives to enforce their ordinances.

To promote safety, Boston inspectors will be on alert for unshoveled sidewalks this winter, said Lisa Timberlake, spokeswoman for the Inspectional Services Department. Residents have six hours after a snowfall to clear walkways; businesses have three hours. Violations at buildings with fewer than six units are $50.

In Boston, snow removal is required for the full width of the sidewalk or a minimum of 42 inches. In addition, shoveling or plowing snow onto city streets from private property is prohibited.

“In some cases, residents will be warned first,’’ Timberlake said. “Everybody’s situation is different. If we happen to be walking down a street and somebody says, ‘Hey, this house over here hasn’t shoveled,’ we have to look.’’

The approach in Worcester is similar, said Bob Moylan, that city’s public works commissioner.

“There is a fair amount of discretion,’’ Moylan said. “There certainly is no desire to do any unnecessary ticketing. I believe the practice has been to give the homeowner the time to clear the sidewalk after they’ve been warned.’’

Worcester’s public works department logs calls that identify problem spots and passes those on to police for enforcement.

In Boston, city inspectors also are not fixated on writing tickets for snow-shoveling scofflaws, Timberlake said.

“It’s not like we’re monsters out there,’’ Timberlake said. “If there are violators, what we try to do once the first snowfall hits is try to educate folks. There are tons of pamphlets and brochures that have been distributed throughout the city.’’

But if inspectors see a hazard, Timberlake said, they will act.

“If the sidewalk is not clear or safe for pedestrians, then tickets will be issued,’’ she said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re not out there trying to issue tickets, we’re just trying to make sure that folks are safe.’’

This weekend’s possible storm could have a major effect on flights at Logan International Airport, as well.

Delta Air Lines told Massport officials yesterday that it has not yet decided how many flights — if any — will be canceled at Logan today after the storm blanketed parts of the Midwest, said Phil Orlandella, Massport spokesman.

He said Delta plans to make that decision this morning. Orlandella said Delta has 55 flights in and out Boston on a regular day’s schedule.

He said no specific preparations for the storm were being made last night, and that no airlines had notified airport officials of any cancellations.

“We’re monitoring the storm and we will take action accordingly,’’ Orlandella said.

“Like everyone else, we’re just waiting to see what the snow will do.’’

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Vivian Ho and L. Finch contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.