Businesses get off lightly in the snow

There’s now a consistent murmur in the media’s coverage of the snow spell about how people clear snow from outside their homes in other countries, how it might be a good thing for people to do the same here (example) and how it might not quite bring down The End Of The World (Legal Department) on your head if you clear snow from outside your own home and someone falls over.

Two things have been notably missing from the coverage though. First, any example of a successful legal action in such a case. There is plenty of “Oooh, well perhaps you might face a risk…” yet none of the dozens of stories like that I’ve found go on to say “… and here’s an actual example”. It’s all theoretical legal fears.

Second has been the silence about the role of businesses, and shops in particular, when it comes to keeping pavements clear of snow.

If you wandered down the shopping street near me you would have seen a very mixed picture: some shops regularly cleared the pavements, others consistently left it completely untouched. By and large it’s the small shops that play a constructive role in the community and it’s the large chains who have been sitting on their hands.

So I tried asking one – William Hill – for the reason:

Sadly for legal reasons we have been advised not to clear outside our shops as apparently we become liable if a member of the public then falls.

When asked, William Hill could not point at any example of a firm ever having been sued in the UK in such circumstances. Perhaps it has happened once or more, but William Hill have made their decision purely on the theoretical legal risk.

Yet, each and every day that William Hill is open for business it runs all sorts of legal risks. Well-run companies keep the risks to a minimum and balance them against other factors – because, after all, the only absolutely risk free business is the one that doesn’t exist.

In the case of William Hill, and other firms, they should be taking into account the contrary risk of the damage to their public reputation if they aren’t willing to play their part in the community and act like a good neighbour during the snow.

For me, it’s certainly damaged their reputation but the behaviour of firms is only going to change if that damage to their reputation becomes rather more widespread and severe.

Overall, companies often get off lightly for the behaviour that is widely condemned and cracked down on if it comes from individuals, as with the corporate and public sectors being responsible for around a third of all incidents of dumped rubbish around where I live – but how often do you hear about crackdowns on such behaviour?

So next time you pass a business that doesn’t clear the snow from outside their premises, why not pop in, make a quick call or send them an email? Being a good neighbour doesn’t just apply to residential areas.

Footnote: some councils have been doing a good job at helping residents who want to be good neighbours. Liberal Democrat run Sutton Council has even got this rather nifty online service to find grit bins and report empty ones. Well done Sutton.

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7 Comments

  • You’d have thought it worth business while to clear outside their shops as your less likely to go into one if you are afraid of slipping over on the ice outside their shop

  • Isn’t this often the case, Mark, that a “theoretical” risk of legal action, insurance requirements / failing to sign off claims etc exists, but the actual risk is much lower? Much scaremongering about “Elf’n’safety Gone Mad”, “EU regulations” etc is to do with theoretical risk. Time people used their common sense and not their overdeveloped and often prejudiced antennae (and, of course, their inhouse, or corporately sourced legal and financial advice!!) In the case you mention, Mark, the latter is probably the main reason for small shops taking their own initiative, whereas chains are frightened of their own shadows.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jan '10 - 8:41am

    Might it not also be the case that an employee sent out to shovel snow could injure himself or herself and make a claim based on shovelling snow not being in his or her contract?

    Jock tells us that in the US it is actually a duty to clear snow from the public land outside your property. Isn’t this the sort of interfering state telling us what to do that Jock usually opposes?

    I was thinking of drawing some political points from this, but actually I think the real answer is that snow like this is very rare, at least in south-east England, so we have lost the cultural instincts over what to do when it happens.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Jan '10 - 9:20am

    Might it not also be the case that an employee sent out to shovel snow could injure himself or herself and make a claim based on shovelling snow not being in his or her contract?

    Of course, and they could also simply refuse to do it and if it went to a tribunal, their right to do so would be upheld. Businesses would never be obliged or entitled to convert their workforce into snow-shovelling slaves; that’s just daft.

    It’s a business. They have two options: offer overtime pay to any workers who are willing to shovel the snow (in which case they’re covered on all points raised above), or pay for a professional to take care of it. All part of your operating expenses, and you can get insurance to cover the costs if you want. No problems here.

  • “This time last year there was an outrageous story about an Oxfordshire farmer who, whilst snow ploughing his farm entrance so the milk tankers could get in decided to go and do the roads in the local village which of course was not a priority for the county council, who in turn castigated him for doing so!”

    I think perhaps this story was exaggerated at the time, Jock. Or perhaps the’re been a chancge of attitude – Oxfordshire County Council this year on its website is praising “over 30 farmers” who have helped them with snow ploughing.

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