By Jason R. Markle
It’s almost winter again, and here in Massachusetts whether you like it or not, that means snow and ice are coming. With the snowier and icier conditions comes the risk of slip and falls for you and visitors on your property. And up until recently, a property owner’s liability for slip and falls rested on whether the hazard was a natural or unnatural accumulation of snow and ice, a rule rejected by every other state in New England long ago. This out-of-date rule, which dated back to 1883, often rewarded property owners who refused to remove or treat snow and ice on their property. Fortunately, in 2010 the Supreme Judicial Court abolished the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice. Instead, the Court imposed on snow and ice hazards the same duty of reasonable care that a property owner owes to visitors for all other hazards. Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368 (2010).
In addition to fixing a broken rule, this change also provided some level of clarity to property owners and pedestrians involved in slip and fall accidents. In the past, liability for slip and fall accidents often hinged on whether an icy hazard was caused naturally as a result of precipitation or caused by runoff from a nearby broken gutter. Under the new rule, property owners now owe a duty to use reasonable care in light of all the circumstances. Simply put, the liability of property owners will rest on the reasonableness of their snow removal efforts, or lack thereof. How difficult or costly was the snow removal or treatment? How serious or foreseeable were the risks of harm?