Thursday, January 1, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Snowplow Operator Blues (1/1)

Question: The snow is flying and our city snowplow crews are again plowing city streets. What happens if one of our snowplow operators is involved in an accident while plowing snow?

Answer: ‘Tis the season for snow covered and icy roads. Plowing snow is a tough job which, by its nature, involves heavy equipment and hazardous road conditions. Unfortunately, accidents involving snowplows occur from time to time.

Like other drivers, city snowplow operators have a duty to exercise reasonable care when operating snowplows on city streets. But, state law recognizes the challenges of city snowplowing operations. City snowplow operators are exempt from traffic rules while actually engaged in plowing operations. This allows them to safely and efficiently remove snow in less-than-ideal weather conditions. This exemption from traffic rules only applies when snowplow operators are actually engaged in work upon the streets. It does not apply when they are traveling to or from the route where work is performed.

There are several immunity defenses to lawsuits involving snowplows:
  •  Common law official immunity protects a snowplow operator’s operational decisions that involve professional judgment and discretion. Minnesota’s winter weather requires snowplow operators to adjust to rapidly changing weather and road conditions. Official immunity protects snowplow operators’ professional assessment of existing weather and road conditions and decisions about how best to remove snow in those conditions.
  • Statutory snow and ice immunity provides immunity from lawsuits based on snow and ice conditions on city streets. It protects cities from liability for damages caused by the natural consequences of snow plowing when it is done according to an established snow removal policy. Snow and ice immunity may be a defense when icy road conditions cause a snowplow to slide into another vehicle or snow blown from a plow blade causes an accident.
  • Statutory discretionary immunity provides immunity from lawsuits challenging planning level decisions that balance policy objectives involving social, political, economic, and safety considerations. This immunity may protect a city against lawsuits challenging a city snowplowing policy or decisions about the type of equipment to use to remove snow and ice.
These immunities may protect the city from liability when snowplow accidents occur. But, it’s better for everyone if accidents are avoided. So, snowplow operators, be safe out there this winter. Drivers, don’t crowd the plow! And cities, remember to notify your insurance agent promptly if and when a snowplow accident occurs.   

Want more? The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust model snowplowing policy is at your service.

Written by James Monge. Contact the League's Research and Information Service staff by emailing, or by calling (651) 281-1200 or (800) 925-1122.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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