Ice and Snow: Proving Municipal Negligence

Municipalities and the Province of Ontario are responsible for fixing unsafe conditions, which includes ice and snow removal on roads. If someone is injured in an accident due to a failure to monitor and fix an unsafe condition, the government body may be liable for the injuries that resulted.

The Ontario law that defines liability when someone is hurt on a premises is the Occupiers’ Liability Act. The Act says that the occupier of a property has a reasonable duty of care to keep anyone entering their premises safe. The occupier may be the owner, tenant or anyone who is responsible for, or has control over the property. This duty of care applies to business owners, homeowners, municipalities and any other party who may control a property. The occupier’s duty of care extends both to the condition of the premises and also to any activities that are carried out on the premises.

Municipalities and other government bodies are responsible for maintaining millions of miles of roads and sidewalks in Ontario. Under the Ontario Municipal Act (2001) section 44, municipalities must maintain roadways and bridges in a reasonable state of repair:

  1. The municipality that has jurisdiction over a highway or bridge shall keep it in a state of repair that is reasonable in the circumstances, including the character and location of the highway or bridge.
  2. A municipality that defaults in complying with subsection (1) is, subject to the Negligence Act, liable for all damages any person sustains because of the default.

This means that municipalities are obligated to fix unsafe conditions of which they should reasonably have been aware. They must also take reasonable steps to prevent the unsafe condition from occurring. The minimum standards for maintaining roads and bridges for Ontario municipalities are outlined under the Minimum Maintenance Standards for Ontario Highways.

Although government bodies are held to a reasonable standard of care; it is unrealistic to expect that every road and sidewalk will be kept in pristine condition at all times. As per the Minimum Maintenance Standard, the obligation to clear snow and ice from roads depends on the classification of each road in a municipality; this classification is based on the annual traffic volume and speed limit for a particular road. Roads with higher traffic and speeds must be inspected and cleared of ice and snow more often. A road that is classified as 'class 1', which is the highest priority in a municipality, must be inspected a minimum of three times weekly and, from October 1st to April 30, the weather forecasts must be monitored at least three times a day. The regulations also specify a time table for treating icy road conditions as well as the amount of snow accumulation that can fall before the municipality must deploy snow removal.

Ms. Montani was a passenger in a car that crashed on Highway 8 in Kitchener, on a long bridge spanning the Grand River. Ms. Montani suffered serious injuries when the driver, Ms. Matthews lost control of the car on black ice that had accumulated on the bridge. The car subsequently struck the bridge and rolled over. In Montani v. Matthews, 1996, Ms. Montani sued her driver for negligence in causing her injuries. The driver, Ms. Matthews, made a third-party claim against the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Communications charging that the accident resulted from the Ministry’s failure to keep Highway 8 in proper repair.

The bridge had been sanded and salted at 8:00 a.m. but when the accident occurred at 11:30 a.m., black ice had again formed. The Ministry Patrol officer who had the responsibility for inspecting this highway was otherwise engaged in towing another Ministry vehicle and no one else was assigned to monitor the highway in his absence. There was evidence that the Ministry was aware that black ice was likely to form on this particular bridge, with regards to the history of the bridge and the weather conditions on the day of the accident. The Highway 8 bridge had a propensity to freeze over in this location and numerous accidents in the past were proof of this circumstance. Due to the virtual certainty of the formation of black ice, the judge concluded that this created a serious and imminent risk of harm to motorists and further, it constituted a special and highly dangerous situation which was known to the Ministry.

In both the original trial and on appeal, the court found equal fault for the Ministry and the driver, Ms. Matthews. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation was found to be negligent in their obligation to maintain the highway under the Municipal Act, s.33. There was also significant evidence that Ms. Matthews was contributorily negligent in her driving. Ms. Montani was awarded $ 200,000 plus costs for her injuries. Under the Municipal Act, s.33, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation is obligated to maintain and repair highways, but the Crown is not expected to be "an insurer of road conditions". Rather, the key issue of this case, was whether the Ministry breached its statutory duty to keep the Grand River bridge in safe condition when they knew or ought to have known that ice would be likely to develop on the bridge, given the low temperature and wet road surface at the time of the accident.

Most Ontario municipalities have bylaws for snow and ice removal on private sidewalks. The Cities of Kitchener and Hamilton, for example, require that private sidewalks are cleared of snow and ice within 24 hours of snowfall. In Kitchener, a failure to do so may result in the City clearing the sidewalk and charging the cost to the homeowner or business owner, which may be $300 - $500, on average. In Hamilton, private occupiers who fail to clear their sidewalks in a timely manner may be fined as much as $5,000. The City of Toronto provides mechanical sidewalk clearing in many areas but wherever this service is not provided, such as in the downtown core area, businesses and homeowners are required to clear their sidewalks within 12 hours or face a fine of $125.

However, if someone slips and falls and is seriously injured on a City sidewalk, it is the Municipality (rarely the private property owner) that may be held negligent for damages. Only in unusual circumstances might a private resident or occupier also be held responsible for slips and falls, such as in the case of a restaurant where the patio area extends onto the sidewalk or where run off from a private property creates an icy area on a public sidewalk.

Municipal sidewalks are generally not held to as high a standard for snow and ice removal as are municipal roads. Although the Municipal Act requires municipalities to keep sidewalks in a reasonable state of repair, including free of ice and snow, municipalities are only liable for injuries on slippery sidewalks if they are found guilty of ‘gross negligence’. Gross negligence is characterized as a reckless disregard for safety or serious carelessness which a municipality ought to have known would result in injury. The standard for snow and ice removal on sidewalks is not defined in municipal law as it is for roads, and the courts assess each slip and fall case individually on its particular merits.

Ontario municipalities require notification in writing within 7 days of your car accident or slip and fall, if you are injured and want to make a claim against the municipality for damages from your injuries. Notice to a township, county or a provincial body (such as the Ministry of Transportation) must be submitted in writing within 10 days of the accident and injury. An exception to these timelines may be granted in the case of mitigating circumstances, such as if the accident resulted in death or catastrophic injury to a loved one.

Determination of fault for injuries that occur on ice and snow requires a consideration of many factors. The Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) associates are specialists in negligence law pertaining to car accidents and slip, trip and fall accidents. Our vast experience and expertise in personal injury actions and accident disability claims serves us well in building a strong case for you, if your injuries resulted from municipal negligence in maintaining a road or sidewalk. Due to the time restriction in initiating a claim against a municipality, you are encouraged to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible following your accident. We welcome you to meet with an ILO lawyer to have your questions answered and to get a candid determination on the strength of your claim.

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