Massachusetts Tort Roundup

There are two Massachusetts personal injury cases to report on this week. One case, Soderberg v. Concorde Greene Condominium Association, modifies Massachusetts law in slip-and-fall cases, making the law less hostile to plaintiffs. The other case, Lev v. Beverly Enterprises-Massachusetts, Inc., has yet to be decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but may allow corporations to be held liable for injuries to third-parties resulting from alcohol served at company parties.
In Soderberg, the plaintiff, an elderly woman, fell and broke her hip when she slipped on some ice on her way to her condo complex’s parking lot. Very often, such slip-and-fall cases are barred by the Massachusetts “natural accumulation,” rule that says that snow and ice that property owners should not be held liable for snow and ice that has accumulated naturally, only for snow and ice that they have altered in some way (this rule is currently under review in a separate pending appeal).
However, in Soderberg, the natural accumulation rule did not apply because the accumulation of snow and ice in the parking lot was not “natural.”
The trial judge instructed the jury that, if they found the natural accumulation rule did not bar the plaintiff’s recovery, they should go on to consider a separate question: whether the snow and ice was an “open and obvious danger,” that is to say, a condition that was so obviously dangerous that any passerby should have taken pains to avoid it.
On the basis of those instructions from the judge, the jury found against the elderly woman. However, the Massachusetts Appeals Court overturned this verdict, saying that it was error for the jury to consider whether the snow and ice constituted an open and obvious danger. The Appeals Court essentially said that, if the jury concluded that the snow and ice were not the result of natural accumulation, they should not go on to consider whether it was an open and obvious danger. The fact that the accumulation was unnatural and the landlord failed to meet his duty to remedy the condition was all the plaintiff needed to prove. (The Appeals Court indicated that it might reach a different conclusion in cases where the snow and ice did not lie in a well-traveled path).
The Soderberg case can be regarded as a helpful one for plaintiff’s-side personal injury lawyers in Massachusetts.
The other Massachusetts personal injury case of note this week was Lev v. Beverly Enterprises-Massachusetts, Inc. The Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case this week.

In Lev, a nursing home held a work meeting at a restaurant where alcohol was served. One of the employees at the meeting had too much to drink at the meeting and, upon leaving, was in a car accident that injured a third-party. The innocent party in the car accident sued the nursing home, saying that it should be liable for its employee’s consumption of alcohol.
At oral argument, the Supreme Judical Court justices did not seem receptive to abandoning Massachusetts bright-line rule that companies do not a duty to third-parties unless they directly provided the alcohol.
It seems like the justices don’t want to end party-time for corporations or their workers, with Justice Cordy noting, “Tonight,….there will be 10,000 people that will leave work and meet with their supervisor for a drink to talk about what’s on the schedule for next week.”
To me, the justices’ reservations about changing the law seem silly and formalistic. Judges like “bright line rules,” because they’re simple and easy to apply and lead to less uncertainty about the law and therefore more uniform results in the decisions that are reached. But, from where I stand, the old bright line rule could just as easily be replaced with a new bright line rule: if an employee becomes intoxicated at a work event, his or her employer will be liable for injuries to third-parties in auto accidents.
Also, who sort of rule is likely to reduce these costly accidents from occurring in the future? A rule that holds deep-pocketed corporations responsible or a rule that shields them from ever having to pay a penny?
Who can most easily prevent these accidents from happening? The innocent third parties who are simply out driving on the roads? The intoxicated drivers who are already suffering from impaired decision-making by the time they get behind the wheel? Or sober corporations who have the ability to control the actions of their employees?
Let’s hope the Supreme Judicial Court decides Lev in a way that will protect us while we’re on the roads.
If you have been injured in a slip-and-fall accident, and require the services of a Boston personal injury attorney, call The Law Office of Alan H. Crede at (617)973-6434 to arrange a free consultation.