Be “Reasonable” This Winter

Litigation Attorneys

Posted in on March 14, 2014

As each summer afternoon ends more quickly than the last, our thoughts, as New Englanders, are of Patriots Football, Post Season Red Sox Baseball and the inevitable arrival of winter. This winter, when you head to your local grocery store to pick up some snacks for the game you may notice that the parking lot appears to have been plowed and salted more thoroughly than ever before. This new condition is almost certainly the result of a case that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided this past July, Commonwealth v. Papadopoulos.

From 1883 up until July 26, 2010, Massachusetts courts along with the rest of New England, were affected by the weather. During that time period a customer of a store, or a tenant of an apartment, who slipped and fell on a “Natural Accumulation” of snow or ice was unable to successfully sue the owner of the store or their landlord. Massachusetts courts, uniquely, drew a distinction between ice and snow that accumulated naturally, such as snowfall on a sidewalk, and ice and snow that accumulated unnaturally, such as water that leaked from a broken pipe and then froze. If a tenant slipped and fell on the sidewalk, where snow had naturally accumulated, the landlord was not held liable for any injury. However, if the customer slipped on the unnatural accumulation of ice, caused by the leaky pipe, then the store owner could be found liable.

This distinction led to very confusing decisions regarding property liability. This distinction is now gone.

In July of 2010, the Supreme Judicial Court decided that when it comes to snow and ice, property owners must act reasonably regardless of whether the accumulation is natural or unnatural. Property owners have a duty to act reasonably under all of the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding risk. While this standard will vary between property owners, depending on their individual circumstances, each will be held to the same principle of reasonableness.

In its decision, the court chose to apply this new standard retroactively making this new analysis available to individuals who were previously injured. At the same time, the court also commented that property owners are still only expected to do what is reasonable when it comes to snow and ice removal.

So this winter, before inviting all of your friends over to watch the game make sure you reasonably shovel and salt your driveway and walk and, if while at your friend’s house, you unfortunately slip and fall, consider whether their shoveling and salting was reasonable.