November 1, 2010 | by Doherty, Ciechanowski, Dugan & Cannon, P.C.

Recent Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling holds property owners have legal obligation to shovel and treat snow and ice on property

With the end of summer and the record snowfalls of 2009 still a recent memory, a recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court could have far reaching implications for your snow and ice removal plans this winter. On July 26, 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Court overruled 125 years of legal precedent and held that all Massachusetts property owners are legally responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property in the case of Papadopoulos v. Target Corp.

The Law Prior to Papadopoulos

Prior to the Court’s decision in Papadopoulos, Massachusetts adhered to an old common law standard that came to be known as the “Massachusetts Rule.” Under the Massachusetts Rule, a landowner’s liability for a slip and fall turned on whether the snow or ice that caused the accident was the result of a natural or unnatural accumulation of snow and ice. If the accident was the result of a natural accumulation of snow or ice, the property owner had no liability for the accident. As a result, property owners could allow snow and ice to accumulate without undertaking any removal efforts and avoid liability.

Papadopoulos Decision

In Papadopoulos, the plaintiff slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot of a mall after shopping at Target. After evaluating the Massachusetts Rule, the Court stated, “[d]etermining liability for a slip and fall injury based on whether the plaintiff fell on a natural rather than unnatural accumulation of snow or ice is not based upon proper considerations.” In making its determination, the Court specifically noted that every other Supreme Court in New England has rejected the Massachusetts Rule and that “[i]t is not reasonable for a property owner to leave snow or ice on a walkway where it is
reasonable to expect that a hardy New England visitor would choose to risk crossing the snow or ice rather than turn back or attempt an equally or more perilous walk around it.”

Current Law

Under the Court’s decision, property owners have 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.”

In essence, the Court’s decision means all property owners, both residential and commercial, are responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property, and whether a property owner takes reasonable steps to remove the snow and ice will be determined by juries on a case by case basis.

Recommendations

Although this change in the law increases public safety and benefits society at large, it likely means individual property owners will face additional personal injury claims. As a result, all property owners should be especially vigilant when clearing snow and ice from their properties this winter, especially areas the public can access. As a practical matter, property owners should clear snow and ice early and often. In addition, property owners and landlords should consider the following:

  • verify you have sufficient insurance liability coverage for any potential exposure;
  • review and examine your snow and ice removal protocols;
  • ensure you are employing trained and fully insured snow removal companies;
  • consider creating a snow removal log to document when, where, how, and what actions were taken to remove snow and ice./li>If you have any questions, or wish to inquire further about these recent changes in the law, please contact Doherty, Ciechanowski, Dugan & Cannon, P.C.This Advisory contains material intended for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice from Doherty, Ciechanowski, Dugan & Cannon, P.C. Any use of this Advisory does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send or share with us any confidential information about you or any specific legal problem without the express authorization of an attorney at Doherty, Ciechanowski, Dugan & Cannon, P.C.