I do a lot of expert-witness work involving snow and ice management issues. Most involve slip-and-fall incidents, sometimes on behalf of snow contractors and sometimes against them.
I’m often asked, “What are the major reasons snow contractors are held liable in such cases?” There are a variety of issues that arise in which snow contractors find themselves on the bad side of a lawsuit. In my opinion, the No. 1 reason is a lack of understanding of what business they are in.
Some believe they are hired to plow or shovel snow. Others think they are oppressed by customers who want something for nothing (of course, there are some customers like that, and avoiding those people is key).
But ultimately, as a snow contractor, your business is risk management. You are hired to mitigate risk in terms of liability. You are hired to keep a site safe for pedestrian and/or vehicular traffic.
Some contractors have issues that can prevent them from conducting business in a professional manner. Self-esteem is often low. They are often “too busy to do the right things.” That’s hogwash. We’re never so busy that it justifies doing the job wrong.
Most of the time, this is the result of the owners/contractors not investing in themselves, their knowledge of business and what constitutes necessary service. There can be no return on an investment that was never made in the first place.
Knowledge is power
In my experience, contractors who seek continuing education are much less likely to be on the losing end of a liability lawsuit than those who don’t want to learn about new techniques, new technologies and more efficient ways to provide a safe environment.
That doesn’t mean you have to get an MBA. It means understanding that proper and accurate documentation of actions on a site can lead to better recall of what took place on any given date. It means proving you actually did what you were supposed to do at a site and used the proper technology to document those actions.
The vast majority of cases I am engaged to work on involve snow or ice management professionals who have no systems in place. They do not document their actions because they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to provide a safe environment. Sometimes, they think that because they have been doing this for 25 years, they know all there is to know about servicing a site where people walk, drive and live.
These same people have common set answers to certain questions:
- Do you belong to any snow trade organizations? Nope, too busy.
- Do you know what product you used for deicing? Yes, good stuff.
- Do you keep track of what you (or your crew) do? Nah. We know what we’re doing and we do it.
- Do you go to any seminars on snow and ice management? No, they’re too expensive.
- Do you get any magazines on snow contracting? Yes, but I don’t have time to read them.
Others think that if they get sued, the insurance company will take care of it. Think again! Maybe they will the first time, but if it happens repeatedly, rates will increase or the policy will get canceled completely. In the end, those people end up blaming the insurance companies for making it too expensive to stay in business.
At the very least, educate yourself about the published standards for the snow and ice management industry, especially those that apply to contractors who work on commercial, industrial and some residential sites. There are parts of other standards that apply to those who service sites, whether they are in-house employees or outside contractors. Familiarize yourself with them. Follow and adhere to them.
That alone will not completely absolve you of the responsibility that comes with keeping sites safe, but it will go a long way toward making you a better, more reliable and more defensible snow contractor.
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