For 20 straight winters, contractor Wayne Shelly cleared driveways and roads across Haliburton County. It wasn’t just a job for him — it was civic duty. Many county roads aren’t maintained by municipalities in the winter and a large portion of locals are retirees who needed the help.
This year, his snow plow will sit idle. For Shelly and many snow removal contractors like him, insurance costs have soared to the point it’s become impossible to make ends meet.
“It was very difficult to give it up because I feel very, very obligated to the people,” said Shelly. “I’ve done it for them for so many years. It’s never been super financially rewarding, but it’s a necessary service. It’s something the people need, and there’s less and less of us able to do it now.”
Four days before his insurance was set to renew last year, Shelly found out the company he’d been with for decades would no longer cover snow plows. He found another company, but it wanted to increase his rate by $4,000, or about 70 per cent, despite the fact Shelly never had a claim against him in all his years of plowing. Then, the company wanted to increase the cost again this year. Shelly didn’t even get a quote — he knew then he’d have to hang it up.
“What they told us is, even though we’re in cottage country where there are hardly ever any claims, they’re basing their rates on the fact there’s been more slip-and-fall lawsuits in cities,” he said. “I guess everybody’s looking for that fast-money lawsuit so they can retire early and not have to work. But I don’t see how that should apply to us since it’s not happening in our area.”
Tony Prentice of Tom Prentice and Sons Trucking had to weather a $5,000 snow plow insurance hike last year. His company still offers the service, but it’s one of few.
“There’s hardly anybody plowing — there’s a real shortage now because of the insurance cost,” he said “It’s been tough for contractors — people who just have one truck and one blade taking on a bunch of cottage roads every winter. Now they’re all getting out of it.”
Prentice and Shelly said insurance prices are so high now that many contractors would have to raise their fee for snow removal past the point of affordability for residents. A job that used to cost $25 has more than tripled and “people are just scraping by as it is,” Prentice said.
“A lot of people are retired, on fixed incomes,” said Shelly. “To charge $80 to do a driveway — I just can’t bring myself to do it. That’s what it would cost to cover insurance and wear-and-tear on the vehicle.”
Greg Raymond, CEO of Insurance Hero, an Ontario brokerage, said he’s seen the number of companies in the province willing to offer snow plow insurance fall from as many as 40 five years ago to less than 10 today.
“The number one reason is the rise in slip-and-fall claims,” he said. “Not only are they happening more often, but the severity is also increasing so the payouts are even greater. It’s costing insurers a lot more money to defend these claims and compensate them.”
Raymond said insurers across the board have been pulling out of less profitable, riskier areas, such as snow removal. Both mounting claims costs and a decrease in return on investments over the past two years have caused Canada’s insurance industry to become far more selective in what it’s willing to grant coverage to.
So, who is filing all these slip-and-fall suits? And why are snow removers liable?
“Typically, it’s clients of businesses who have their parking lots plowed by snow removal contractors,” said Raymond. “If Walmart hires a contractor to clear its lot and someone falls on their way to the store, that individual will sue Walmart, but also bring in the snow removal contractor. There’s responsibility and liability that falls on that contractor and their insurance provider.
“And it could be no fault of the snow removal operator — they’ll still get dragged into that lawsuit and defend themselves, even if it’s frivolous.”
And why would claims be increasing? Is snow becoming plow-resistant, ice forming faster?
“It’s not that contractors are doing a worse job, the industry is just getting more litigious,” said Raymond. “Personal injury lawyers have become more active.”
To add another layer of unfairness to what’s happened to Shelly’s business, he’s also barred from even volunteer snow plowing.
Without snow removal insurance, Shelly can’t even clear an elderly neighbour’s driveway for free without risking the loss of insurance coverage on other aspects of his construction work.
“It bothers me that people I’ve known so well for so long are struggling to find people now,” he said. “I checked with the insurance company and even if someone is really stuck or in an emergency, if I’m found to be plowing, my entire policy gets dropped.”
Cabin owner Neil Campbell said many who live in the county are wondering how they can stay in their homes this winter. He said during the pandemic, many cottages on the lakes accessed by back roads have become year-round homes.
“For the homeowner, aside from the difficulty of getting out an unplowed road for groceries and such, there would be the question of how emergency services would get in if help was needed,” said Campbell. “I’m told that many home insurance policies say your fire insurance is invalid if road access is unavailable.”
Shelly said that’s a big reason why having reliable snow removal services is so crucial for the community.
“Even for people who have cottages who don’t go into them at all throughout the winter, if they can’t get fire vehicles in there and there happens to be a fire, that could be a huge problem,” he said.