It has been a glorious summer in Massachusetts. Warm, dry, and sunny. But, winter is on the horizon. Last year was a cold and snowy winter and we may be in store for more of the same.
The average yearly snowfall on the Massachusetts Northshore ranges from 40.8 inches in Marblehead to over 48 inches per year in Haverhill. In Boston, Lynnfield and Saugus the average yearly snowfall is 44 inches. In addition we have ice storms, sleet and freezing rain, all of which cause slippery driveways and sidewalks.
Sure, it’s beautiful looking out the window as the flakes fall who doesn’t recall the exhilaration of building snow forts, throwing snow balls and sledding with friends. Throughout the Northshore of Massachusetts we take pride that snow and ice does not shut down our lives. We venture out to shovel our walk, we head out on the icy and snowy roads and we have confidence in the skills of the plow drivers to keep our highways clear.
However, there is a downside to all this beauty. Although the snow and ice may seem harmless, there is potential liability and danger of injury from slip and fall accidents on accumulations of snow or ice.
The doctrine of legal responsibility for injuries from falls on snow and ice has changed over the years. In 2010, the Supreme Court in Massachusetts ruled in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010) to overturn 125 years of legal precedent. Mr. Papadopoulos was injured when he slipped and fell on a patch of ice at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Massachusetts in front of the Target Department Store. He filed suit against Target Corporation, which he alleged controlled the area of the parking lot where he fell. He also sued Weiss Landscaping Company, Inc., the contractor responsible to remove snow and ice from the Liberty Tree parking areas.
Before this case, Massachusetts followed the common law rule whereby a landowner would not be held responsible for liable for injuries sustained by a slip and fall on a natural accumulation of snow or ice. Landowners would only be liable if the accumulation was found to be unnatural and the landowner had failed to use reasonable care to safeguard the property or people on it. For many years, following the common law standard of natural vs. unnatural accumulation led to different and unpredictable litigation outcomes; requiring the Courts to determine, case by case, if the injuries were caused from a slip on natural or unnatural accumulations and whether the landowner had used reasonable care. State by state in New England, that standard has been rejected. Finally, in 2010, Massachusetts fell in line with the other New England states and adopted the new standard.
The SJC in Papadopoulos concluded that the standard of care reasonably expected of a property owner for snow and ice removal will be dependent upon the amount of foot traffic that could be reasonable anticipated on the property, the magnitude of risk to the public or to persons lawfully on the property and the burden and expense of snow and ice removal. The Court in Papadopoulos concluded that what constitutes reasonable snow removal may vary upon the type of dwelling or business operation involved.
Or, as stated in another Massachusetts decision: ” [T]he simple fact that a person slips on ice on another’s property does not subject the property owner to liability.” Aylward v. McCloskey, 412 Mass. 77, 80 (1992). But Massachusetts landowners owe a duty of reasonable care to those lawfully on their property; and if you slip and fall, the land owner may be responsible if he or she was negligent. Snow and ice accumulations trigger the same duty to remedy as other dangerous conditions.
We hope this will be a mild winter; but let’s face it, when the Dolphins come in to play the Pats on December 14th—let it snow!