Now that the snow and ice season is upon us in New England, a primer on the law of snow and ice removal is warranted.
The general rule of premises liability in Massachusetts is that a property owner owes a duty to all lawful visitors to use reasonable care to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances. Massachusetts law long recognized an exception to this general rule in snow and ice cases, and this was only recently abolished.
It was not always the law in Massachusetts that property owners were required to remove ice and snow. Given the propensity for significant snow and ice accumulation during New England winters, prior law in Massachusetts did not place a heavy burden on property owners. The long standing Massachusetts rule used to be that property owners had no responsibility to remove natural accumulations of ice and snow. It was only unnatural accumulations of ice and snow that had to be cleared. A slip and fall on ice or snow became a dispute as to whether it was a natural or unnatural accumulation which caused a fall. For example, if snow and ice backed up in a gutter and then melted and dripped on a sidewalk or parking lot, and then falling temperatures caused it to refreeze creating an ice patch or slick area, that would be considered an unnatural accumulation.
The law in Massachusetts changed in 2010, with the Supreme Judicial Court’s landmark decision in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010). This case was a major change in Massachusetts premises liability law with ramifications for all Massachusetts property owners with respect to snow and ice removal.
In Papadopoulos, plaintiff was injured when he slipped and fell on ice in the parking lot of a Target store in Danvers, MA. A negligence claim was brought against Target, the owner of the property, and the contractor Target retained to remove snow and ice. The SJC in its ruling abolished the long standing Massachusetts rule which differentiated between natural and unnatural accumulations of ice and snow.
The SJC held that, with respect to snow and ice removal, property owners must act as reasonable persons with respect to the condition of their property, regardless of how snow and ice accumulates.
The lesson for property owners is to act reasonably after a snowstorm and make sure to clear your driveways, parking lots and walkways.
In Massachusetts, property owners (commercial and residential) are responsible for snow and ice removal, as they are the ones in control of the property. People who slip and fall on snow and ice can suffer serious injuries, subjecting the property owner to significant liability. Therefore, if you are a property owner, make sure to shovel your property after a storm and clear it of ice and snow. The legal buzzword at play, as in most areas of tort/negligence law, is “reasonable.” Property owners must use reasonable care with respect to removal of ice and snow.