Snow and Ice Liability…Are Changes Afoot?

Winter presents challenges to property and business owners regarding the removal of snow and ice from their premises, and making the premises safe for invitees. It is important for property owners and businesses to understand the law in this area and to be aware of the potential changes in the law that affect a property owner’s exposure to liability in the event someone is injured on your property due to a fall on ice or snow.

The rule in Massachusetts to determine liability in cases where there has been a slip and fall on snow and ice has not changed in over one hundred years. The central question asked by the courts is whether the fall occurred due to a natural or unnatural accumulation of snow or ice. If the fall was caused by an unnatural accumulation, liability may exist. But while the rule appears straightforward, the large body of case law that exists on this topic shows that how the courts answer this question is somewhat unpredictable and confusing—Was the snow shoveled in a reasonable manner given the location and traffic around the premises? Did the ice form due to water dripping from a gutter or roof overhang? Should the owner have salted in addition to shoveling?

However, the Supreme Judicial Court recently heard arguments on a case that may alter the way these cases are evaluated. In accepting the case of Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., the Court specifically asked the parties to address the issue of whether the distinction between a natural versus unnatural accumulation of snow and ice should continue to be a factor in determining the negligence of the property owner. In Papadopoulos, the plaintiff fell on ice covered with dirt and sand when exiting a Target store in Danvers. He fractured his hip in the fall, and subsequently sued Target and the snow removal company that had cleared the parking lot that day.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the Defendants, stating that the ice either had fallen from a pile of plowed snow, or had melted and refroze. In either case the Court said that the plaintiff fell on a natural accumulation. In accepting this case for review, the SJC has struck fear in the hearts of some property owners that a change in the law may increase their exposure to liability.

Indeed, if the natural versus unnatural accumulation rule is abandoned, Massachusetts could adopt a “reasonable care” standard, as advocated by the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys in an amicus brief filed in this case. This analysis would place a greater burden on property owners to continuously inspect their property and to ensure employees or agents regularly address any accumulation of ice or snow. While, of course, safety is a goal everyone should strive for, such a burden would be complicated, subjective, and expensive, particularly in this part of the United States. Such a rule would also expose such property owners to much greater liability. The defendants in this case rightfully argue that adoption of a “reasonable care” standard in snow and ice cases would impose an unreasonable maintenance burden on many property owners. The Defendants cite the example of a plowed strip mall parking lot—the snow must go somewhere, and asking property owners to monitor the freezing, melting and refreezing of snow piles, the change in their shape due to tumbling or third party interference, is unreasonable.

How the Court rules in this case may impact your obligations with respect to the maintenance of your property. Whether you are a business person, a landlord, or simply a homeowner, this decision is one to watch.

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