Nova Scotia

Suing over slip and fall injuries rarely in favour of pedestrians

You've decided to walk to your office in downtown Halifax and end up taking a tumble on an icy sidewalk along the way. You're forced to take time off work and the bills are piling up. What can you do?

'There's a question of assumption of risk,' says Bill Leahey

Lawyers say even though many of the sidewalks are still far from passable, the city is likely not liable for any injuries you may suffer if you fall. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

You've decided to walk to your office in downtown Halifax and end up taking a tumble on an icy sidewalk along the way.

You're left with a broken ankle that takes weeks to heal and puts you off work. The bills are piling up and you have no income in the meantime. What can you do?

Lawyers say even though many of the sidewalks in the Halifax Regional Municipality are still far from passable, the city is likely not liable for any injuries you may suffer if you fall.

Reasonable efforts

John Traves, a solicitor for the Halifax Regional Municipality, said if the city is taking reasonable efforts to clear the sidewalks, that becomes their defence.

"If there's a situation where you know everybody is struggling to remove ice whether on a driveway or elsewhere, the city is going to have the same problems," he said.

It's not their job

As frustrating as it may be to hear, clearing the sidewalks is not the city's job, Traves said. The contractors hired to clear the sidewalks are the ones legally liable, not the city.

"If we're sued as a result, then ultimately the contractors indemnify us and they have bonding or other financial support so that essentially we can claim back against them," Traves said.

Hard to find a lawyer

It may be difficult to find a private lawyer willing to take the case.

Bill Leahey, a litigation lawyer, said he's seen an increase in the number of calls to his practice from people interested in suing over a slip and fall, but this year has been unusual and courts will see that.

Leahey said just about every sidewalk is covered with ice and snow, some with several inches of it.

Assumed risk

Leahey said if you can see the danger — for example, several centimetres of solid ice on the sidewalk — then it's you who is assuming the risk.

"Today, as soon as you step out your door, you know that you're in a sea of ice," he said. "So there's a question of assumption of risk."

He said it may sound unfair, but the fact is you're alerted to the risk the ice presents.

Unusual circumstances

Leahey said the city may not be meeting its snow and ice clearing standards, but the reality is the circumstances of this winter have made it difficult. One storm after another — and not just snow, but freezing rain and rain — has resulted in ice several centimetres thick.

Traditional methods of clearing sidewalks aren't working this year, and Leahey said those extenuating circumstances means courts are unlikely to side with the pedestrian.

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