Spring is finally here, and now that the last of the snow from the recent snowstorms has melted after being piled high, we can finally see the grass again. Although snowplows may be in hibernation until next year, you may wonder: did any municipalities face liability for snowplow accidents during this past messy winter? While rare, snowplow accidents happen. But can a municipality be held responsible for the actions of its driver/employee? The answer is generally, not very often. 

In most instances a snowplow operator “actually engaged in work on the highway” is exempt from the rules of the road and may only be held liable for damages caused by an act done and reckless disregard for the safety of others.[1] The claimant/plaintiff must establish that the “operator acted in conscious disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow.” This type of municipal law makes it difficult to prove an accident was the operator’s fault.

In this case, an employee of the Village of Great Neck Estates was operating a Village-owned snowplow. While in reverse, the snowplow was involved in an accident with a pedestrian walking in the street. The plaintiff later sued the employee and the Village for personal injuries. The court held that the employee did not act with “reckless disregard for the safety of others” since the employee testified that he had the beeping alert of the snowplow activated, was traveling at a low speed, and had the snowplow lights on. Additionally, the employee testified that he was looking in the snowplow’s mirrors while traveling backward but did not see the pedestrian behind the snowplow. In this instance, the plaintiff was unable to prove that the operator acted in “conscious disregard of a known or obvious risk.”

Contrast those facts with the long resolved Neddo case from 1949, where an automobile collided with a snow scraper on a highway in New York.[2] In this case, the state was ultimately found liable for failing to have proper lighting on a snow scraper. Likewise, in the 1982 Cherico case, New York City was held liable after a car accident when a snowplow-equipped truck caused an accumulation of ice and snow to fly over a guard rail and smash a driver’s windshield.[3] In that case, an engineer testified that that the snowplow operator did not follow the proper method of snow removal, which would have been to push the snow off the roadway onto the right shoulder instead of into the center.

If a municipality is served with a Notice of Claim for a vehicular accident involving a snowplow, it should be treated like any other claim and forwarded to the insurance carrier or third-party adjuster. Realize, however, that only in rare circumstances will a municipality be held responsible for the actions of its snowplow operators.

At CMM, we know that navigating municipal law on your own can be a challenge. If we can be of any assistance or you need a municipal law attorney on your side, please feel free to contact us at (631) 738-9100

[1] Kaffash v. Village of Great Neck Estates, 190 A.D.3d 709 (2d Dep’t 2021).

[2] Neddo v. State of New York, 300 N.Y. 533 (1949).

[3] Cherico v. City of New York, 88 A.D.2d 889 (1st Dep’t 1982).