New Massachusetts Snow Removal Liability For Property Owners – Part Two

In my previous post on this subject, I wrote of how the law governing liability for injuries suffered on someone else’s property due to slipping or falling on snow or ice, has recently undergone some major changes. The changes come not from the Massachusetts Legislature, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Thankfully, those changes have finally come. In Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, the SJC eliminated the ancient distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of ice and snow discussed in my last post, terming the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of ice and snow a “relic” derived from old cases, which “has sown confusion and conflict in our case law.” The Court’s ruling stated that “We now will apply to hazards arising from snow and ice the same obligation that a property owner owes to lawful visitors as to all other hazards: a duty to ‘act as a reasonable person under all of the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk.'” (emphasis added.) This means that all property owners – homeowners or commercial – must take reasonable measures to minimize as much as possible any safety hazards created by snow or ice – regardless of whether that snow or ice has been previously moved or altered in any manner.

Very importantly, the SJC applied the new rule “retroactively”, to any cases that are currently pending before state court dockets, or that have yet to be filed. This is so even if the injury has already occurred, so long as those cases have not proceeded to final judgment or the statute of limitations on the action (typically three years) has not expired. That’s it. End of discussion. From this point forward, Massachusetts will follow the same legal principles as the other forty-nine states in this country.

Critics of this important legal decision have derided it as opening up a floodgate of Massachusetts personal injury litigation. (Those critics are usually liability insurance industry executives and commercial property owners.) I highly doubt that will result. In my opinion as a Norfolk County, Massachusetts premises liability lawyer, the chief effect this decision is going to produce, is to remove the inequities that often resulted previously, between who could, and could not, recover for injuries suffered on a property owner’s premises due to a fall on snow or ice. Because of the confusion surrounding the previous “Accumulation Doctrine,” many injured persons who deserved to recover for their injuries, could not.

What the court has done here, is to equalize the liability standard for snow and ice injuries, with the same liability standard applied to all other property hazards. That standard (one of “reasonable care” under the circumstances) is not an undue burden to place on either real estate owners, or commercial property owners. Now, a level playing field will exist for all plaintiffs and defendants in these types of actions. That’s a good thing, not the reverse. Noticeably in its January 9 2011 Sunday edition, The Boston Globe supported this position in its editorial last Sunday (click here to read that editorial.)

The easiest legal translation and the bottom line: If you own any kind of property, personal or commercial, you must undertake “reasonable measures” to clear your property of safety hazards caused by the presence of snow and ice. Common sense: This means clear the snow and ice as fast and as much as is reasonably possible, and salt or sand any remaining hazard.

If you’re someone who has suffered an injury due to a fall on snow or ice on property owned by someone else, contact us for a free consultation. We have extensive experience in these types of injury cases, and we can help you secure the maximum amount possible for your injuries.

Either way, stay warm and stay safe.