August 29, 2016
We can prove it
Progressive snow and ice contractors embrace recordkeeping technology
— the value is all in the details
BY SCOTT BARBER
Like the adage about death and taxes, slip-and-fall claims are an unfortunate, yet inevitable, part of the snow and ice management industry. Whether the claims are frivolous, fraudulent or legitimate, it doesn’t matter how well service was performed if a contractor doesn’t have records to back it up.
Fortunately, technological advances are making it easier for snow and ice industry to document and track their services, prove they lived up to their contractual obligations and stop slip and fall claims in their tracks.
Massive data cache, no successful claims
For Ken Ruddock, president of ULS Maintenance and Landscaping of Calgary, Alta., keeping insurance premiums down for his 100-truck fleet is critical. With 300-400 snow and ice clients in and around Calgary and Saskatoon, his risk exposure is high.
In business since 1989, ULS has never had a slip-and-fall claim go to past the discovery stage.
Investment in technology has been a big part of keeping that record clean. “Documentation is the centrepiece of everything we do,” Ruddock says.
The company stored countless files in 40-ft. shipping containers for years, because they didn’t know where else to put them. However, several years ago, Ruddock decided to invest in a professional archive service to digitize the paperwork; when a specific document is needed for proof of service or to fight a slip-and-fall claim, it can be retrieved electronically in minutes. It is much easier than rooting through “those cold, dark and dusty containers,” Ruddock says with a laugh.
Ruddock says the documentation and record keeping starts at first contact with potential clients, where they assess needs and wants, as well as the client’s understanding of snow and ice management and liability issues. Some clients are sophisticated and understand the importance of thorough contracts and record keeping, while others, “just think they need someone to come shovel the snow.”
ULS won’t take on such clients, “because from our perspective, it’s hazardous every single day of the year,” Ruddock explains. “You can slip and fall as soon as there’s even the smallest amount of snow on the ground. In fact, there doesn’t even need to be snow or ice for a slip and fall, so we will only do business with a client that understands the need to set up some measurable standards for when it snows X amount, we’ll attend the site within a specific time period and continue to service the property until it’s clear and deemed safe.”
There is no room for vague language in a contract that could allow an aggressive lawyer for a slip and fall claimant to wriggle his way in, Ruddock adds. And that’s just the beginning.
“Every piece of paperwork that comes from our crews is scanned and uploaded into Microsoft SharePoint,” Ruddock says. “We’ve been working this way for the last three years so that any document we could possibly need, stating the times a property was serviced, what equipment was used and how much material was put down, is at our fingertips.”
Smart tracking on smartphones
Mark Humphries, owner of Humphries Landscape Services in Oshawa, Ont., takes electronic documentation even further.
His crew members input service information into specialized software installed on their smart phones, and the data is automatically uploaded to the company’s online cloud storage. “As fast as my guys are typing it is as fast as I can see it,” Humphries says. “That’s how I can tell in real time where my guys are and what work has been completed.”
With over three decades’ experience in the snow and ice business, Humphries has never been hit with a successful slip-and-fall claim.
He attributes the clean record to the quality of the service his company provides, of course, but also to their zeal for organization and record keeping. Now, the ubiquity of smart phones and developments in digital storage are allowing Humphries to step up his game even further.
All of Humphries’ service records are downloaded from the cloud service and stored within massive hard drives at the company’s meticulously organized head office.
“We pull everything because lawyers will never launch a slip-and-fall claim during the winter,” Humphries says. “They wait for the summertime, hoping you forgot what went on. They’ll wait until the very last minute, which is two years, in hopes that the contractor doesn’t have good records, knowing they can bust you on that fact.”
Humphries knows the process well, having faced several big claims over the years. And he’s proud he has been able to make “every single one of them go away.”
“Why haven’t I had a legitimate slip-and-fall claim? Because we do our work,” he says. “Insurance lawyers love me because I’ll fight the case for them by laying out our records and our documentation.”
Every important detail is accounted for, because, “the little details actually weigh a lot when you get to arguing at discovery and pre-trial, where most of these things are settled.”
The truth wins
Humphries has also beaten fraudulent cases by proving his company had done its work and catching a claimant in lies. “It’s due diligence on my part,” he explains.
In one case, Humphries was certain his crew had done its job at a plaza where a man in his 60s claimed to have fallen. He knew the claimant’s address was across the street from the plaza, and that it had a sloped driveway that was likely to ice. So Humphries figured the claimant likely slipped on his own driveway, fractured his shoulder, and took himself across the street to the retail plaza before calling an ambulance.
When Humphries told his insurance company’s appointed lawyer his theory, the lawyer told him he’d been “watching too much TV.” And that it would be impossible to prove.
But the lawyer was wrong.
At discovery, Humphries suggested the lawyer interview the claimant’s wife, listed as a witness on the action. “I told him to keep on her and on her and on her and to get tougher and tougher,” Humphries recalled. “I knew that she would break and admit they crawled across the street to the plaza. And she did.
“I know that we have paperwork and records to back up our work, so where is the claimant’s proof? If they say they were coming out of a retail store, can they show what they went in to buy? Do they have the receipt? How did they pay for it? If it was on their credit card, can they produce the records to prove it?”
Record keeping can go both ways.
Keeping clients in the loop
Jessica Milligan is vice-president of Strathmore Landscape in Montreal, Que. After getting back into the snow-and-ice business five years ago, the company has landed some of the most high-profile commercial contracts in Montreal, including the Place Ville Marie.
That caliber of clientele requires zero-tolerance service, meaning as soon as it snows or ices, service must be undertaken.
“At a major client like the Place Ville Marie, our service starts from the first day of snow till the last where we’ll have a presence onsite every single day,” Milligan explains. “Every morning we have crews that go around and tour each property to look for any drifting, or to clean up any snow or ice that may have fallen from a rooftop the night before, and it’s all logged. And it’s the same for each snow event of course, where crews will service each property and record all of the times and services that were completed.”
Like Humphries’ company, Strathmore also utilizes smart phones for record keeping. But instead of using customized software, staff members input information into Google Docs, which is accessible online by administrators and management at their head office.
And not only does Strathmore store all of that data, but they also export the information to their clients.
“Sending all of that information each month was a service that we decided to add for our high end clientele,” Milligan explains. “They weren’t necessarily asking for it, at first, but now it’s really becoming standard across more and more of our contracts. I think it has sort of set the tone for the industry in Montreal.”
Location, location, location
GPS tracking is another business management and liability protection tool all three companies have embraced.
Ruddock and his company ULS are new to the practice, having launched a pilot project this spring. “We have talked about how GPS will be a useful tool to document where our guys are and what they’re doing as it relates to snow, because while we all have the paperwork that says we were clearing snow at a certain place and a certain time, going forward we will be able to pull a GPS report that can actually put our trucks physically there,” he said. “It corroborates the paperwork.”
He added, “This is a conversation I’m going to have with our insurers and certainly when I’m dealing with a lawyer on a slip-and-fall case. They all tell me that every little bit helps. So while I don’t think that just having GPS in the truck is the be-all and end-all, because technically a claimant’s lawyer could argue that it only proves that your truck is on a site and it doesn’t prove that your guys are there and that they are actually doing the job while they are there, it does work to augment the records the crews made.”
Installing GPS tracking was never about “the Big Brother aspect,” Ruddock notes, but it is a useful fleet management tool when it comes to tracking statistics like speeding and idling.
During the first month of their pilot project, Ruddock says they quickly noticed how much fuel their trucks were burning by idling. The stats showed that across the whole fleet, idling rates would see some 20,000 litres burned over the course of a year.
Going forward, Ruddock says they will be working with staff to reduce those figures, and he believes they could save more than double the cost of the GPS system in that area alone.
Milligan at Strathmore is also in the midst of a GPS pilot project, looking at speeding and idling, as well as optimal routing for crews.
Humphries has been using GPS technology for even longer. “All of our crews are tracked by GPS, which is pinging frequently to the point where we can actually watch a crew’s progress across a site, going back and forth, if you were inclined to watch that closely,” Humphries said. “More importantly, if there was ever an issue, say a client complaint or a slip-and-fall claim, we can pull the GPS breadcrumb trail and say, ‘look, we know it started snowing at five o’clock, we were on site at quarter after five, we progressed across the site as quickly as possible, but the claimant slipped and fell at an area that hadn’t been plowed yet.’ It wasn’t that we didn’t do our due diligence; we did everything we could in a reasonable manner, but we aren’t magicians.”
Risk control, yes; cost control, maybe
While Ruddock, Humphries and Milligan have each combined scrupulous record keeping with leading-edge tech to make their businesses more efficient and protect against slip-and-fall claims, none of the three could connect those practices with lower insurance premiums.
Indeed, when asked how technological advances can mitigate slip-and-fall liability risk, the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association’s partnered insurance broker, Marsh Canada, did not take the opportunity to comment.
However it’s obvious: the ability to store records digitally makes it quicker and easier to pull files in the event of a slip-and-fall claim; and GPS tracking provides rock solid corroboration for those records.
Will insurance providers catch up and recognize the potential these practices can have on liability issues for snow and ice professionals going forward? That remains to be seen, though it’s certainly worth discussing at your next broker consultation. In the meanwhile, all three contractors interviewed strongly endorse detailed documentation as a defensive strategy.