Slipping on Snow and Ice: How Massachusetts Had it Wrong
The winter of 2015-2016 has finally given Boston its first significant snowfalls of the season (no complaints here). With the return of snow, Massachusetts residents will once again get out the shovels and the sand to clear their walkways, driveways, and roads. Of course this also means the return of slippery conditions and the risk of injuries from slipping and falling.
In Massachusetts, it is the responsibility of all property owners and occupiers to ensure that their property is kept in a reasonably safe condition. You would assume this included a duty to reasonably remove snow and ice hazards from the property. However, until 2010, this was not the case.
Until 2010, property owners in Massachusetts had no duty to remove "natural accumulations" of snow and ice from their property. This meant that snow and ice could be left alone without fear of liability, even if it posed a risk to people being injured by slipping and falling. This strange rule was unique to Massachusetts; not even our sister states in the snowy Northeast shared it.
The rule everywhere else was a simple one: a property owner or occupier has a duty to reasonably remove snow and ice hazards from their property. Failure to do so could result in legal liability.
Massachusetts first articulated its "natural accumulation" rule in 1883. In that case, a woman slipped and fell on granite steps in a common area of her tenement house. The court applied the prevailing rule at the time that a landlord was not responsible for removing an obstruction he/she did not create. Therefore, since the ice on the steps was not put there by the landlord, the landlord would not be held responsible for it.
This general rule changed over time, but the natural/unnatural accumulation test became a hallmark of snow/ice slip and fall cases. Experts would need to be hired to make the argument that the offending ice or snow was "unnatural" in some way, e.g. re-freeze from a falling pipe vs. freezing rain. This made snow and ice cases costly, complicated, and difficult for an injured plaintiff to receive compensation for his/her injuries.
After 130 years, the Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") finally decided to re-visit this legal aberration. The case was Papadopoulos v. Target. The plaintiff in that case had slipped and fallen on ice in a Target parking lot. The plaintiff brought suit against Target and the company hired to remove the snow and ice. However, the plaintiff's case was dismissed by the judge, because the ice in the parking lot had been a natural accumulation.
After reviewing the complicated history of the rule, the SJC determined that it was no longer viable. The only rationale supporting the rule was the same that had applied when it was created: that the snow and ice hazard had not been created by the property owner, and this rationale no longer applied to any other hazard, such as a banana peel on the floor of a supermarket. Therefore, the court finally abandoned this special distinction in premises liability law.
The rule that would now apply to snow and ice cases would be the same as just about everywhere else: property owners/occupiers must reasonably keep their property in a safe condition for legal visitors in all respects, including snow and ice conditions.
So, do not forget this winter that Massachusetts now expects all owners/occupants to keep their properties in a reasonably safe condition. This includes a duty to take reasonable action to remove snow and ice hazards. Failure to do so could result in legal liability.
If you have been injured as a result of a slip and fall due to snow or ice, contact the Law Offices of Samuel A. Segal for a free consultation. Time is limited to file notice and a claim, so call as soon as possible to determine and protect your rights.