The Big Freeze becomes the Big Claim

The law – especially in relation to negligence claims – can often appear uncertain. In fact, one of the first and most useful points of law a solicitor is taught to understand when assessing the merits of a case (at least those not pertaining to strict liability) is that an initial query can always be answered by the words: “it depends”. Ultimately, the law can be used as a shield, weapon or both; indeed, there is rarely a question of law that cannot be answered from multiple angles, which is partly why the justice system in the UK is comprised of various different courts. This flexible yet complex nature of the English legal system has been brought into focus during the first week or two of 2010, as the nation was gripped by what has been aptly called a “big freeze”.

Although heavy snow, record low temperatures and subsequent ice have conspired to produce truly hazardous conditions across much of the British Isles, it is perhaps inadvisable for homeowners to do anything about it in their area. Unlike certain other countries – notably Canada, the US and various Scandinavian nations – the UK has no legal measures in place to effectively combat the adverse weather and difficult driving conditions. In certain US states, for example, residents are required by law to remove snow from their driveways, paths and even local streets within 24 hours of snowfall having ceased. In Sweden, it is law for winter tyres to be used during the cold months. In contrast, the UK Government’s advice to motorists is to take care or drive only if absolutely necessary, which does nothing to solve the problems of severe ice and snow on many of the country’s roads. Likewise, the expert advice to homeowners and businesses is not to clear snow and ice off pavements and roads as doing so might invite a claim for negligence should somebody suffer a personal injury on them.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has warned businesses and organisations against clearing ice and snow or gritting of public paths. Whilst this may appear somewhat counterproductive, the reasoning behind the warning is that if injuries were to occur on stretches of pavement that have been cleared, those responsible for clearing the ice are also responsible for creating a perception that the pavement is safe and clear. Where injuries occur on cleared patches of pavement, it is relatively simple to establish causation in a legal and factual sense. Although such claims are not entirely straightforward to argue in practice, the fact remains that clearing snow or ice can open up an individual to a claim for compensation. The solution to this problem is thus simple enough: homeowners, residents and businesses ought to let nature take its course in thawing the snow and ice. As phrased in no uncertain terms by John McQuater, President of the National Association of Personal Injury Lawyers: “if you do nothing you cannot be liable”.

Conversely, it is only right that people who suffer slips on partially or wholly untreated roads and pathways are able to seek compensation for their injuries. Irrespective of the unprecedented weather conditions, it is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that public roads and paths are safe – should you be unfortunate enough to sustain injuries after slipping on an icy pavement, it is imperative that you contact a specialist personal injury solicitor as soon as possible in order to discuss the potential merits of the claim.

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