By Steve Galea
Slip-and-fall lawsuits in Toronto and other urban areas are not just costly to the businesses and property owners directly involved. They are also having an indirect effect on snow plow operators in Haliburton County and the rest of Ontario, in terms of increased insurance premiums and, in some cases, loss of coverage.
In fact, significant rate increases, combined with rising operating costs, have caused some long-time snow plow operators to shut down operations, leaving customers scrambling to find businesses willing to take on more work.
Jim Love, of Miner’s Bay, experienced the fallout from the insurance crisis plaguing the plowing business in mid-October, when the snow plow operator he had contracted for many years told him that he would be closing his business this year.
“He told me he couldn’t afford to plow this year. I asked why and he said, ‘the insurance is killing me’ and he quoted an insane number. He tried to find someone else to take over the business and he couldn’t. This was more than just a financial thing. He didn’t want to let me and other customers down.”
Having snow removal services is critical to him, as it is to many who live in Haliburton County. Love, who lives a full kilometre from the nearest plowed road, said it has never been easy to get that service.
“It’s hard work. These people get up early and work long days. Not a lot of people want to do this.”
Luckily, he found a new plow operator relatively quickly, but prior to that considered purchasing his own plow and truck.
“We’re not rich but we have the means to do this … And I started thinking what about all those poor people who can’t afford this? What will they do?”
Tom Prentice of Tom Prentice & Sons Trucking has provided snow removal services for approximately 30 years. He says it is the mainstay of his business in winter and is what allows the company to keep their employees working year-round.
His company plows more than 100 properties each day, which include businesses around Minden, residences, and on Thursdays and Fridays, cottages and cottage access roads so their owners can visit their properties on the weekends.
“Last year my insurance company forewarned us that this was coming,” he said. “There were increases last year. It will be increasing again this year.”
Right about that same time, Tony DiGiovanni, executive director of Landscape Ontario, an organization that also advocates for snow and ice removal trades, declared, “We are in the midst of an insurance crisis.”
At that time, DiGiovanni reported receiving calls from concerned business owners across the province who could no longer get insurance for their snow and ice removal operations. Others reported their insurance rates had doubled or tripled, while deductibles also increased.
“The quantity of lawsuits, probably encouraged by relentless advertisements, has resulted in many insurance companies pulling out of providing winter service coverage,” DiGiovanni said at the time. “With no coverage, there will be no service. This is an extremely serious issue that will affect every member of the public.”
“I recently heard an insurance spokesperson on a radio show say that even if a lawsuit wasn’t successful, for every dollar the insurance company charged us, they needed to pay $1.14 in legal costs,” said Prentice. “So they adjusted their rates accordingly.”
He said his company’s insurance increased by a significant amount for the five plows they run. Asked if these costs will be passed on to customers, he replied, “It still has to be worked out. We did not entirely recoup costs last year. The number of snow plow times were down.”
Prentice said that the plowing business can be difficult to plan for in the best of times.
“It is hard to predict how any winter will go,” he said. “You can’t say for certain how many visits your plows will have to make. I can see why some guys threw in the towel.”
At press time, he knows of three operators that have stopped plowing services. He says plowing businesses are already stretched and notes that the loss of these services will mean customers will have an even harder time finding people to clear driveways and do snow removal.
“We’re turning down a lot of plowing jobs,” he said. “Our drivers can only legally work 13-hour days.”
He says the people who will be affected most by the loss of plow operators will be those who have come here during the pandemic who have not yet established a relationship with a snow removal and plowing service, as well as those customers who have recently lost their plow operators and are currently looking for a new one.
Snow plow and snow removal services are often dragged into slip-and-fall lawsuits regardless of if they were even there at the time of the incident.
Prior to last January, people were permitted to enact a slip-and-fall lawsuit for up to two years after the incident. This left a wide window open for lawsuits that were, on occasion, regarding incidents that were previously unknown by the parties being sued or whose details were largely forgotten by those targeted. Lawsuits with these lengthy time lags also made it difficult for snow plow operators to defend themselves in court.
Last January, however, Bill 118 was passed. That legislation made changes to Ontario’s Occupiers’ Liability Act that barred any action for personal injury damages caused by snow or ice conditions against an occupier or independent contractor employed to remove snow or ice from the premises when the injury occurred, to within 60 days, with some exceptions.
Landscape Ontario applauded the bill and noted in a press release, “The changes will unquestionably result in a reduced number of claims and insurance payouts. They will also hopefully, over time, result in reduced premiums for contractors.”
Whether that happens still remains to be seen.
Global factors are also influencing insurance rates. In 2019 and 2020 and, insurance claims, much related to climate change, rose globally to $160 billion dollars, which is equal to the cumulative total in the previous six years. These costs have also trickled down to consumers.
Prentice would like to see the law changed so that people involved in slip-and-fall incidents should have to report the incident immediately, if they want to proceed with a lawsuit. He feels this would allow all parties involved to have better recollection of the conditions and services rendered that day and perhaps reduce frivolous lawsuits.
In the meantime, depending on snowfall, this could be a winter in which more driveways and private roads remain snow covered for longer. Aside from preventing people from going to work, visiting their seasonal residences or shopping, it could also present challenges to emergency services, fuel delivery and other essential services.
Love has written to MPP Laurie Scott (Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock) to voice his concern.
He said, “I’m ticked. Plowing is not an option. It is a necessity.”