While the New Jersey area has yet to see significant snowfall, the recent blockbuster totals in the Buffalo, New York area highlight that Mother Nature can wreak havoc on businesses. From shoveling sidewalks to paying workers who can’t make it to work, it is important to understand your legal obligations when it comes to avoiding a snow-related lawsuit.

Duty to Remove Snow and Ice

Under New Jersey’s premises liability laws, commercial property owners have a duty to keep sidewalks abutting the property safe for members of the public. The specific legal standard is that the owner of commercial property must “exercise reasonable care” to see to it that the condition of the abutting sidewalk is reasonably safe and does not subject pedestrians to an unreasonable risk of harm. Accordingly, failing to take steps to address the accumulation of snow and ice, such as shoveling, putting down salt, or posting signs, could lead to liability.

“Snow” Days for Employees

The Department of Labor (DOL) considers an absence due to adverse weather conditions, such as when transportation difficulties experienced during a snow emergency prevent workers from getting to work even though the employer is open for business, an absence for personal reasons. In such cases, the DOL advises that employers may lawfully deduct one full-day’s absence from the salary or leave bank of an exempt employee. If the office is officially closed due to snow, salary deductions are not authorized. The employer can, however, require the employee to use vacation time or other accrued leave to cover missed time.

Contract Clauses

Snowy roads and icy runways can also prevent businesses from delivering goods or performing services on time. In these cases, it is important to determine if the applicable contract has a force majeure clause, which relieves the parties from performing their duties under the contract in circumstances deemed beyond their control that make performance inadvisable, commercially impracticable, illegal, or impossible. Examples include natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other “acts of God.”  If your contract does not contain a force majeure provision, you will have to rely on the common law contract remedies, such as impracticability and frustration of purpose, which are typically much less favorable.