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Are You Automatically Liable if Someone Slips and Falls on Ice on Your Property?

Posted November 09, 2018

By Jonathan A. Karon

With winter approaching, it seems like a good time for a brief primer on a homeowner’s duty to remove snow and ice from their property. In the last decade, Massachusetts law changed considerably. Until 2010, Massachusetts followed what was known as the “natural accumulation” of ice and snow rule, which prohibited claims for personal injuries for slipping and falling on “natural accumulations” of ice and snow. In those days, in order to recover, a plaintiff had to show that the defendant’s conduct somehow changed the character of the snow and ice, for example that negligent maintenance of the property caused water to pool and freeze in that location or that the snow and ice had been allowed to melt and re-freeze, causing it to become dirty and rutted.

The “natural accumulation” rule simply didn’t make any sense. It was based on the idea that hey, this is New England and “snow happens”. But in practice it led to absurd results. In those days, no matter how long you knew there was ice on your sidewalk, how little effort would have been required to remove it and no matter how many people had hurt themselves previously, you were usually immunized from liability. For example, in one famous case against the town of Brookline, the plaintiff was injured when he slipped on ice leading to a town building. The evidence indicated that town employees made the walkway more dangerous by removing a layer of snow, leaving just exposed ice. The Supreme Judicial Court held that the plaintiff couldn’t recover, as a matter of law, (meaning he couldn’t even present his case to a jury) as there was no evidence that shoveling the snow created the ice. Sullivan v. Town of Brookline, 416 Mass. 825 (1994).

This all changed in 2010 in the case of Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010). The plaintiff slipped and fell in the parking lot of a shopping mall and sued the store which owned the parking lot and the snow and ice removal company it hired. The lower Court entered judgment for both defendants on the basis, as usual, that the plaintiff fell on a natural accumulation of ice.

This time, however, things were different. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the “natural accumulation” rule was “a relic of abandoned landlord tenant law” that no longer made sense. Instead property owners would have the same duty the law imposes in all other personal injury cases “to act as a reasonable person under all the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others; the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk.”

When newspaper stories first reported this new standard, many people became alarmed that they would automatically be liable if someone slipped on ice on their property. That is not what the Supreme Judicial Court held. A plaintiff still has the burden of proving that the defendant did not behave “reasonably”. The Court specifically noted that what would be considered “reasonable”  behavior would likely vary for different types of property owners like the owner of a single family home, an apartment building, a shopping center or a nursing home.

By the way, the fact that snow and ice is obvious to pedestrians, doesn’t relieve you of the duty to remove it. In Soederberg v. Concord Greene, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 333 (2010), the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that it is foreseeable that people will walk on snow or ice even if they know it’s there, if they think they can do so safely. The jury can, however, consider whether the plaintiff was comparatively negligent in choosing to walk on the snow and ice.

So, in the end, the law requires that you behave reasonably. If you know there’s a serious danger and you can do something about it you should. That’s the right thing to do, regardless of potential liability. If you do what you can, then you shouldn’t be held liable. But if you ignore snow and ice or any other dangerous condition on your property, that’s another story.

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