Property Owners Responsible for Proving Liability in Slip-and-Fall Cases

The landscape of slip-and-fall lawsuits may change dramatically in Massachusetts, as the state is changing the legal standard for proving fault in such cases.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has now abandoned the standard required in slip-and-fall cases involving snow and ice covered sidewalks and property. In Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, the Court overturned a century of case law in holding Target responsible for Papadopoulos' injuries sustained in an icy parking lot in 2002.

Before the Court's ruling, the Commonwealth followed the "natural accumulation rule," which essentially protected property owners from legal liability for injuries caused by untouched snow and ice. Only when snow and ice was altered (by footprints, snowplow tracks, or leaking gutters) could an injured person successfully sue a property owner for failing to treat or remove the condition. As such, property owners had a distinct advantage in defending ice and snow slip-and-fall claims.

The abolition of the natural accumulation rule levels the playing field for plaintiffs in Massachusetts premises liability cases. The new rule is better for Massachusetts plaintiffs because it shifts the burden of reasonable care to the property owner. With property owners now responsible for removing snow and ice (just as they would with other hazards that would injure guests) in a timely and reasonable manner, plaintiffs no longer have the difficult burden of proving that snow was actually altered to successfully pursue a slip-and-fall claim.

Experts agree that property owners must now be vigilant about clearing dangerous hazards, especially in the winter, as juries will focus less on the conditions and more on the conduct of the property owner. They are expected to clear fallen snow promptly, and treat accumulating ice in the same manner.

If you have questions about how the new standard applies to your situation, contact an experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney.