Businesses get off lightly in the snow

There’s now a consistent murmur in the media’s coverage of the snow spell about how people clear snow from outside their homes in other countries, how it might be a good thing for people to do the same here (example) and how it might not quite bring down The End Of The World (Legal Department) on your head if you clear snow from outside your own home and someone falls over.

Two things have been notably missing from the coverage though. First, any example of a successful legal action in such a case. There is plenty of “Oooh, well perhaps you might face a risk…” yet none of the dozens of stories like that I’ve found go on to say “… and here’s an actual example”. It’s all theoretical legal fears.

Second has been the silence about the role of businesses, and shops in particular, when it comes to keeping pavements clear of snow.

If you wandered down the shopping street near me you would have seen a very mixed picture: some shops regularly cleared the pavements, others consistently left it completely untouched.┬áBy and large it’s the small shops that play a constructive role in the community and it’s the large chains who have been sitting on their hands.

So I tried asking one – William Hill – for the reason:

Sadly for legal reasons we have been advised not to clear outside our shops as apparently we become liable if a member of the public then falls.

When asked, William Hill could not point at any example of a firm ever having been sued in the UK in such circumstances. Perhaps it has happened once or more, but William Hill have made their decision purely on the theoretical legal risk.

Yet, each and every day that William Hill is open for business it runs all sorts of legal risks. Well-run companies keep the risks to a minimum and balance them against other factors – because, after all, the only absolutely risk free business is the one that doesn’t exist.

In the case of William Hill, and other firms, they should be taking into account the contrary risk of the damage to their public reputation if they aren’t willing to play their part in the community and act like a good neighbour during the snow.

For me, it’s certainly damaged their reputation but the behaviour of firms is only going to change if that damage to their reputation becomes rather more widespread and severe.

Overall, companies often get off lightly for the behaviour that is widely condemned and cracked down on if it comes from individuals, as with the corporate and public sectors being responsible for around a third of all incidents of dumped rubbish around where I live – but how often do you hear about crackdowns on such behaviour?

So next time you pass a business that doesn’t clear the snow from outside their premises, why not pop in, make a quick call or send them an email? Being a good neighbour doesn’t just apply to residential areas.

Footnote: some councils have been doing a good job at helping residents who want to be good neighbours. Liberal Democrat run Sutton Council has even got this rather nifty online service to find grit bins and report empty ones. Well done Sutton.

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