By David A. Firmin, Esq, HindmanSanchez P.C.
Winter in a community association can be beautiful, serene, and of course wrought with perils from freezing pipes to slip and falls. In addition to the pipes and snow, the association also must consider the pressures of its budgets. Associations will look to trim snow removal costs in order to balance budgets by increasing the inches of snow that falls prior to calling for snow removal. These strategies, while well intentioned, may cause more problems than they are worth.
Associations have legal responsibilities under the governing documents and through established common law to take sufficient steps to exercise reasonable care to protect against dangers of which the association knows or should know upon reasonable inquiry. With this standard in mind, the association can take several steps to mitigate risks and avoid potential pitfalls that come with the winter months.
As with all factors, education of both the owners and the board can go a long way. Prior to the first freeze of the season, the association should discuss the winter issues, including the importance of keeping a minimum level of heat in the units. Additionally, keeping cabinet doors open at night can assist in the air flow in the unit allowing warm air to keep pipes from freezing.
The board should also take time to walk the property with its elected snow removal contractor. Point out to the contractor problem areas that tend to collect ice along with where the snow storage areas will be located. The board should also point out those areas that may need extra attention, which can be given while the contractor is there during the first snow push allowing for proactive snow removal.
These problem areas can also be pointed out to the owners and residents within the community. This will assist residents in avoiding these problems areas.
When dealing with snow removal issues, the association should look for ways to address the issues prior to their becoming a problem. Proactive ideas for winter issues include email blasts to owners prior to freeze and snow events reminding owners to turn up heating, opening cabinet doors, and if needed moving cars to allow efficient snow removal. The association may also consider placing ice melt or sand stations in problem areas (identified in the snow walk).
Encourage owners to promptly report problem areas as soon as they are known. The association can then take steps to mitigate these issues.
In the Event of a Lawsuit…Don’t Panic
Of course, even the most prepared and diligent association can run into trouble. In order to ensure that the association is in the best possible position to defend a suit, the association should establish and follow policies and procedures for regular inspections, snow and ice removal, supervision of vendors, and posting warnings. If the association is notified of a slip and fall, the association should investigate the alleged area of the fall. Photographs of the condition of the area should be taken and maintenance logs preserved.
Finally, risks can be shifted and insured through appropriate insurance coverages for the association, and through indemnity provisions in contracts with vendors and warnings. Associations should team with their insurance professionals as well as legal counsel to ensure coverages are sufficient to withstand these perils. In addition to the association’s master policy, the association should encourage its owners to revisit their personal policies. Make sure the owners and tenants have sufficient coverage for their personal property along with items not covered by the association’s policy.
If the association takes the appropriate steps, “Winter is Coming” will not strike the association with fear of slips, falls, broken pipes and lawsuits (or dragons), but rather good tidings and cheer.
David Firmin is the Managing Partner at HindmanSanchez P.C. in Lakewood, CO. HindmanSanchez is a HOA law firm serving the Denver Metro area, Northern and Southern Colorado, and the mountain communities.