Avoid a Slippery Situation: Take the Right Steps to Prevent Falls on Snow and Ice

In the K&G Spring newsletter, I wrote about a pending decision in the Supreme Judicial Court that could impact a property or business owner’s liability with regard to snow related injuries. In Papadopoulos v. Target Corp. et. al., the Court re-evaluated the long-standing legal standard for determining liability in snow and ice cases. For over a century, Massachusetts courts have distinguished between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice, and held that property owners could not be liable for failing to remove natural accumulations. The Papadopoulos decision, rendered on July 26, 2010, abolishes that distinction. It holds that property owners have a duty to ensure that their property is kept “reasonably safe”—including from hazards created from naturally accumulated snow and/or ice.

The Papadopoulos case involved a man who broke his pelvis after slipping on ice in front of a Target store. While the lot had been cleared of snow, a pile had been plowed onto a median strip, and was the origin of the ice that caused his fall. A lower court judge dismissed Papadopoulos’s suit, stating that it did not matter whether the ice had fallen from the pile, or had melted and refrozen; either way, it was a natural accumulation for which the property owner could not be held liable.

In reversing the lower court’s dismissal, the SJC applied the same rule to snow and ice cases as exists for other property hazards—the 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.” The Court remanded the case for reconsideration under the new standard, and said that the new standard will apply retroactively to pending lawsuits.

Both the plaintiff and defense bars agree that there will be an increase in litigation against property owners as a result of this new standard. Plaintiffs will now be able to pursue claims against property owners who did not reasonably clear their property of snow and ice, and property owners (generally through their insurer) will have to defend their actions to a jury, instead of getting cases involving natural accumulations dismissed early in litigation. This will undoubtedly translate to higher insurance premiums for property owners. The ultimate question of how a “reasonable” person would have responded to an accumulation of snow and ice on their property is one that will have to be developed over time, by juries, as the cases arise.

If you are a property owner, it is essential that you take steps to ensure prompt and thorough plowing or snow removal on your premises, and inspect the property regularly for maintenance. If you contract with a snow removal company, make sure that company is insured and keeps a record of when and how they remove snow and/or ice from your property. Finally, if there are areas of your property that are difficult or impossible to maintain in a safe condition, place warnings signs in the area to put visitors on notice of the hazards.

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