New Massachusetts Snow Removal Liability For Property Owners – Part One

In the wake of last week’s major snowstorm, you won’t read a more timely or important post than this one – at least on the subject of Massachusetts personal injury law. The reason is that very recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC,) issued a landmark, critical decision in the area of property owner liability for injuries caused by slips and falls due to snow and ice.

The case name is Papadopoulos v. Target, 457 Mass. 368 (2010.) This is a landmark decision because in it, the SJC completely changed the legal standards and rules that are applied in these types of Massachusetts premises liability cases. For almost 100 years previous to this decision, the legal question of whether or not a landowner – a homeowner or commercial property owner – was liable for another person’s injuries due to a slip or fall on snow or ice, was extremely complicated and often murky.

Why? Because Massachusetts common law previously required judges and juries to make a complicated distinction between “natural” and “artificial” accumulations of snow and ice. What’s the difference? For almost 100 years, that was a good question – and one that judges themselves (trial and appellate) often had a hard time answering.

Previous to this landmark ruling, liability in these types of cases was decided according to the confusing “Natural Accumulation Doctrine” (or the “Massachusetts Rule”, aptly named because we were the only state in the Union that employed it.) People who suffered injuries by slipping and falling on snow or ice which had accumulated naturally and which remained untouched by the owner were unable to recover from the owner for their injuries. Under the previous, antiquated law, property owners (both personal and commercial) were not liable for injuries resulting from snow that remained unplowed, or icy parking lots that weren’t sanded. The explanation? Supposedly, these types of conditions were “natural” conditions, freeing the property owner from liability.

In contrast, if a property owner for example, plowed snow into a pile, then later on that snow melted, the water runoff re-froze and someone fell on that ice and suffered injuries, that property owner could be held liable for those injuries. The reason? Again supposedly, the property owner, in the process of plowing or shoveling, had “changed the natural condition of the snow”, and therefore rendered the snow and/or ice into an “unnatural accumulation”. Because the snow and ice that caused the injuries was in an “unnatural accumulation”, liability resulted. Confused enough yet? So were a lot of people, for many, many years.

Far worse from this law sowing such confusion, it produced serious inequities between injured persons who could, and could not, recover for many times serious injuries. Believe me, we aren’t talking about just sprained ankles here – a fall on snow or ice can result in surprisingly devastating injuries, including broken necks and backs, fractured skulls – even paralysis. The rule also fostered a disincentive for some property owners to undertake serious efforts to clear their property of snow and ice – because if they did, under the law they would have changed the snow or ice from a “natural accumulation” to an “unnatural accumulation”, and hence opened themselves up to potential legal liability for any injuries that resulted from a slip or fall due to snow or ice on the property. Many property owners were legally better off not removing the snow, or not taking measures to sand the ice. Over time, this confusing and inequitable concept was expanded to include even more confusing scenarios than the ones described above.

I’ll detail the important changes that the SJC has made in this area of Massachusetts premises liability, in my next post.