In what is being hailed as one of the most important Massachusetts premises liability cases in decades, the Supreme Judicial Court last week in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation abolished the so-called “natural accumulation” rule that had long governed Massachusetts slip-and-fall cases involving snow and ice.
The so-called “natural accumulation” rule held that Massachusetts property owners were not liable for injuries resulting from the natural accumulation of snow and ice on their properties. So, for example, if a snowstorm dropped a foot of ice and snow on a Massachusetts property, the property owner could not be held liable if a visitor slipped and fell on that virgin snowfall because it was “natural accumulation.”
Of course what was natural accumulation and what was some artificial alteration of the natural accumulation was never really clear. As the Supreme Judicial Court noted in last week’s decision, the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulation, “has proved difficult to apply because virgin snow that falls on a heavily trafficked walkway, driveway, or parking area is soon changed by the tramping of feet, the rolling of tires and the passage of time.” The natural accumulation rule had even resulted in the absurdity that property owners who shovel away a top layer of snow, revealing a bottom layer of ice, were not liable to individuals who slipped on the ice because the bottom layer of ice was considered “natural accumulation.” Barrasso v. Hillview West Condominium Trust, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 135 (2009).
The natural accumulation rule was such an outlier that, in other jurisdictions, it was referred to as the “Massachusetts rule.” All of the other courts in snowy New England had rejected it and imposed a duty of reasonable care on property owners.
In Papadopoulos, the Supreme Judicial Court finally joined those other jurisdictions, holding that a property owner will now owe the same duty of reasonable care regarding dangers arising from snow and ice on his property that he owes with regard to all other hazards to lawful visitors on his property. What exactly is that duty of reasonable care, what are its flesh and sinews? In last week’s opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court stated: “The snow removal reasonably expected of a property owner will depend on the amount of foot traffic to be anticipated on the property, the magnitude of the risk reasonably feared, and the burden and expense of snow and ice removal. Therefore, while an owner of a single-family home, an apartment house owner, a store owner and a nursing home operator each owe lawful visitors to their property a duty of reasonable care, what constitutes reasonable snow removal may vary among them.”
The new reasonable care standard is a far superior rule to the old “natural accumulation” rule. The natural accumulation rule was unclear and therefore difficult and expensive to apply. Furthermore, property owners did not rely on it. Because the distinction between what was “natural” accumulation and what was “unnatural” was so illusory, the legal standard made no difference to the way that businesses actually plowed their property. And regardless of the legal standard, any business owner who wanted to attract patrons would have to plow and shovel his property.
Next winter, we’ll get our first opportunity to see how this new legal rule will develop in Massachusetts.
If you were injured when you slipped and fell on ice or snow, and require the services of a Boston personal injury attorney, call The Law Office of Alan H. Crede today at (617)973-6434 for a free consultation.