The world of civil liability law in Massachusetts, or tort law as attorneys call it, is changing. And as with most change that takes place within society, there are opposing forces to change; one that supports the change; one that doesn’t. If that doesn’t exactly excite you, if you’re a homeowner you might want to know that one such major change in the area of Massachusetts tort law that was seen in recent years, was the Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) ruling on the subject of whether or not homeowners could be held liable for slip & fall injuries occurring on their property due to snow and ice not being removed from the property in a timely fashion. The legal upshot: They can now.
Years of legal principle in Massachusetts had generally insulated homeowners from such liability, applying an arcane and often little-understood idea previously known as the “unnatural accumulation” principle. This convoluted theory held that unless the offending snow and ice that caused the injuries in question was the result of “unnatural accumulation” – i.e., previous shoveling or plowing – then the homeowner was not liable. As a Boston, Massachusetts slip and fall attorney, I can assure you: This often confusing rationale usually resulted in unjust rulings and verdicts, and in fact discouraged homeowners from shoveling or removing snow & ice from their property. That no longer results, as homeowners can now be held liable for injuries due to snow & ice on their property, regardless of how it ended up there.
Now, the subject of sidewalk liability is about to become the next area of legal review by the SJC – and people in this state may be in for quite a change in this area of liability law. The obvious reason? This is New England. Slip and fall injuries taking place on municipal sidewalks that covered with either snow or ice are inevitable, and even though businesses could in rare circumstances face liability for such injuries, they usually don’t. Resident property owners almost never do. The reason for this is that at common law, a duty to remove snow or ice only existed if the defendant owned the sidewalk. Because neither businesses nor homeowners own public sidewalks, there is no duty to clear the snow and ice. Thus, the legal responsibility for maintaining them has always fallen on the city or town, not the business owner that the sidewalk abuts, nor the homeowner that the sidewalk abuts.
But that may be about to change. I’ll explain in Part Two of this post, later this week.