Nova Scotia

Halifax not obliged to clear sidewalks, fall victim told

When Brian Walsh tumbled two years ago on an icy downtown Halifax sidewalk, he thought he had a straightforward claim of damages against the city to recoup thousands of dollars in medical expenses. He was wrong.

Brian Walsh and his lawyer stunned to learn city's legal position on sidewalk plowing

Brian Walsh says he fell on a slippery sidewalk two years ago, incurring nearly $13,000 in medical expenses. (Jacob Smith/CBC)

When Brian Walsh tumbled two years ago on an icy downtown Halifax sidewalk, he thought he had a solid claim for damages after he was left injured for five months.

Instead, once he and his lawyer Devin Maxwell made a claim to the municipality, they learned a curious fact: Halifax says it’s under no obligation to clear sidewalks at all.

“It was really shocking for me to see the position that they took,” Maxwell tells CBC.

Walsh slipped on the sidewalk after stepping out of a cab at the corner of George Street and Bedford Row.

“After putting two feet onto the foot pad, all of a sudden my right foot just buckled from under me and it was as if my ankle bent like my knee or my elbow would,” Walsh says.

That fall not only caused him a lot of physical pain but also a lot of pain in his pocket book. Walsh’s medical expenses now total just under $13,000.

In October of 2013, Walsh filed an action in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia against the Halifax Regional Municipality for what he felt was inadequate maintenance of the sidewalk. 
Brian Walsh had nine pins and a plate inserted in his ankle after injuring it on a slippery sidewalk. (Courtesy Brian Walsh)

After his lawyer wrote the city with a claim, he received a letter back stating the charter that governs HRM, “does not impose a statutory obligation to clear snow and ice from sidewalks or streets and the legislation is purely permissive.”

It's a statement that's perplexed Walsh's lawyer.

“What they’ve actually said is that they have a discretion to take care of the sidewalks in the city," Maxwell says. "They don’t have to maintain the sidewalks, but that they may do so if they choose to.”   

In 2013, the municipality took over sidewalk snow clearing across all of HRM and municipal council approved service standards. 

For priority one sidewalks, crews have a goal to clear 12 hours after snowfall; 18 hours for priority two sidewalks; and 36 hours for priority three sidewalks.    

Prior to that bylaw, some property owners in the Halifax region were required to “completely free” of snow and ice those sidewalks abutting their property within 12 hours after a snowfall.

If this wasn’t done, a compliance officer could issue a notice to the property owner to clear the area. If that failed, the city would send in a crew to perform the task and bill the property owner.

However, since the city has taken over all sidewalk clearing, it now says, “there is no obligation on a municipality to keep its sidewalks completely free from ice and snow as it would be impossible to do so in our climate and would demand much more resources than can be expected of any municipality,” according to an email to CBC.

Jennifer Stairs, spokesperson with the city, says if you were to slip and fall inside the snow removal period of the service standards approved in 2013, it’s unlikely the municipality would be held liable.
Many sidewalks in the Halifax area still coated in ice following a succession of winter storms. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

“If we’re still within that time frame, it essentially is looked at as an unfortunate event,” Stairs says.

Another thing to keep in mind is if you do slip on a sidewalk that's not been properly maintained, it might not be the city at fault. It could be the city-hired contractor, Stairs says.

“We wouldn't give out the name of the contractor for a particular sidewalk where someone may have fallen. We would want the resident to file the report with 311 and our staff would look into it.” Stairs said.

“There is a clause in those contracts that indemnifies the municipality for any negligence on the part of the contractor.”

Between April 1, 2013, to March 31, 2014, there were 16 claims reported with a total of $3,955.83 paid to date.

There have only been three reported claims so far in 2014-2015 and nothing has been paid out.

Walsh’s lawyer says it’s a wider public issue that the city claims there is no obligation for the municipality to clear its sidewalks.

Maxwell says they will now have to resolve Walsh’s claims in front of a judge.

For Walsh, this unfortunate event is all too real because the city is denying liability for his injuries.

“What happens if nothing comes from that claim, what’s going to happen to that bill?” he says.

About the Author

Jacob Smith

Reporter

Jacob Smith has been working at CBC since he was 18 years old. He has worked on multiple live radio and television broadcasts and is now part of CBC's digital team.

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