Snow brings responsibilities to small business owners

By Joyce M. Rosenberg

AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Snow can be more than an irritant and disruption for small businesses. It can also be a legal liability.

Let's say there's been a storm and you haven't removed the snow from the sidewalk outside your building or store. Or you've done a sloppy job and left ice. If someone slips and falls, it could cost you. Even if you have insurance, you'll likely have expenses and probably a higher premium in the future.

For many new business owners, this is the first time they've had to consider snow from a commercial rather than residential vantage point. It's a good idea to find out what the law, your insurance policy and maybe even your landlord require you to do, before the next snowstorm gets you in trouble.

Get a legal education

The laws covering responsibility for snow removal vary from state to state, and even from one municipality to another. You need to find out what you're required to do.

In Connecticut, for example, whoever is "in possession and control of" the property adjacent to a sidewalk is responsible for removing snow and ice and keeping the sidewalk reasonably safe. That "whoever" could be the building's owner. But if the tenant has control over the property, he or she is responsible. So, if you have a store in the state, or any place with a similar law, you need to clear the snow and ice and put down salt or sand.

You also need to know the laws about when you must have the snow cleared. Does the law allow you to start after all the snow has fallen, or do you need to be out there clearing it away before you have three-feet drifts? If the snow stops at 3 a.m., do you have to be out there soon after?

Remember, if your property includes space for parking, be sure that's cleared and is safe, too.

Watch out for ice ments - and mini-avalanches

Being a property owner or renter who's responsible for post-snow safety means being vigilant as long as there's melting snow. If pools of water from dripping snow freeze and someone falls, it's your problem. Ditto if ice or snow cascades off a slanted roof and hits a passerby.

If you have employees, make sure that they know where the salt is and to put it on an icy sidewalk if you're not there. If you have a slanted roof, get as much snow off it as you can right after the storm. If ice forms, find a way to block off the sidewalk until it's no longer a threat.

Is your insurance coverage adequate?

A standard business owners policy will have what's known as slip and fall coverage. The question is whether you've bought enough to cover accidents that may happen. Many businesses cut back their insurance to save money during the recession. You should talk with your insurance agent, and perhaps your lawyer, to get a sense of how much coverage you should have.

If you've started a business in your home, be aware that your homeowners policy may not cover you for business-related snow accidents. If a client or delivery person falls on your icy walk, your insurance company might not reimburse you. Call your insurance agent and see whether you need to purchase separate coverage.

The good news - your snow blower is deductible

Your expenses for snow removal for your business are tax deductible, whether you hire someone to do it for you or purchase equipment for you or your employees to use.

If you decide to invest in a big piece of equipment like a snow blower or, if you have a lot of property, your own plow, you may be able to deduct it under Section 179. That deduction, named for a provision of the tax code, allows small businesses to deduct upfront rather than depreciate over time the cost of many kinds of equipment.

Published: Tue, Jan 25, 2011