Changes May Be Coming to Massachusetts Snow and Ice Rule
Slip and Fall on Natural vs. Unnatural Snow Accumulation
Massachusetts finally may be seeing a change to its antiquated snow and ice rule. In early February, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard oral arguments in a case challenging the existing rule regarding property owner liability for injuries caused by snow and ice.
Under current Massachusetts law, a property owner is not liable for any injuries resulting from a “natural,” or untouched, accumulation of snow or ice. A property owner’s liability for injuries resulting from snow or ice only arises once the snow or ice has been altered in some way by human action, or if the snow or ice resulted from human action in the first place, for example ice that forms around a leaking pipe. Accordingly, to prevail in a personal injury lawsuit, an injury victim must prove that the accumulation is unnatural – this is very difficult thing to prove.
In Papadopoulos, et al. v. Target Corporation, et al., the plaintiff suffered a hip fracture when he slipped and fell on ice covered by dirt and sand after leaving a Dover Target store. The plaintiff brought suit against the retailer and its landscaper, Weiss Landscaping Company, which had been at the store to clear the ice on the same day as the plaintiff was injured.
At trial, the judge found in favor of Target, arguing that the plaintiff had fallen on a natural accumulation of snow and ice. On appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, agreeing that Target was not liable because the accumulation was natural. The plaintiff then appealed his case to the SJC.
The SJC granted review and directed the parties to present arguments on the following issue: “whether in a premises liability action involving snow and ice, the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice should continue to be a factor under Massachusetts law.”
Injury Victims Unfairly Punished by Current Rule
The snow and ice rule has been part of the state’s laws for more than 100 years. The law has been subject to serious criticism for its arbitrary and inconsistent application. Many have argued that the state needs to adopt a more current and fair rule, like those used in other snowy New England states. For example, under Connecticut’s snow and ice rule, property owners are given a “reasonable amount of time” after a winter storm to remove snow and ice from their property.
In the appellant’s brief to the SJC, Papadopoulos argued that the current snow and ice rule encourages commercial property owners to allow snow and ice to accumulate on their properties rather than to remove it, creating unsafe conditions for the public.
Indeed, it makes little legal sense to generally require property owners to keep and maintain their property in a reasonably safe manner, but then to allow them an exception to the rule when it comes to snow and ice accumulation. Such an exception to the general rule unfairly punishes injured people, who may suffer serious harm and incur great medical expenses as a consequence of a snow and ice-related injuries.
Those opposed to changing the law argue that the change would unfairly assign liability to property owners. They also argue that property owners still have incentives to remove snow and ice from their premises – namely to continue to attract customers to their businesses who otherwise might be deterred by a snowy or icy parking lot or sidewalk.
If the SJC rules in favor of changing the Massachusetts snow and ice rule, the decision would be a large, positive shift for the rights of injured people in the state. Currently, people in Massachusetts rarely pursue premises liability claims related to snow and ice despite suffering serious injuries because these cases are so difficult to win. Changing the law to a more appropriate, modern standard would provide injury victims with a meaningful opportunity to pursue their claims against negligent property owners – something the current law denies them.