Massachusetts Court Changes Slip-and-Fall Liability

July 29, 2010

In a decision that changes nearly a century’s worth of case law, Massachusetts highest court has ruled that property owners can be held liable for snow-related injuries — regardless of whether plows cleared the snow.

For more than 100 years, a key factor in liability for a slip-and-fall injury was how the snow or ice came to lay on the ground. The state has long maintained a difference between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice, and apportioned liability accordingly. Previous cases in the courts had consistently found that property owners who did not remove “natural” accumulations of snow and ice could not be held liable for a slip and fall.

However, the Supreme Judicial Court has now invalidated that long-held legal distinction in the Bay State.

This case centered on an elderly man, Emanuel Papadopoulos, of Peabody, who fell on ice as he was leaving a Target store in Danvers — a slip and fall that left him with a broken pelvis.

He sued Target and its plowing company, but the case was dismissed by a lower court, which ruled that the department store chain was not liable since the patch of ice — caused by snow that melted and refroze — was deemed by the judge to have occurred “naturally.”

But the Supreme Judicial Court overturned that verdict, finding that property owners have “a duty to keep the property reasonably safe.

“We now abolish the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice, and apply to all hazards arising from snow and ice the same obligation of reasonable care that a property owner owes to lawful visitors regarding all other hazards,” the court said.

The decision brings Massachusetts in line with most other states in terms of liability for slip-and-fall lawsuits related to snowfall. The most widely applied standard, known as the “Connecticut Rule” in legal circles, makes no significant differentiation between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow in determining whether and how liability would be apportioned in a slip and fall.

The court said that its decision would ease judges’ difficulties in deciding whether an accumulation of snow was unnatural or natural.

The decision, the court said, would be retroactive to previous lawsuits as well — opening up the door for renewed interest in old slip-and-fall claims.

The decision remands the case to Superior Court.

Papadopoulos’ lawyer, Emmanuel Papanickolas, praised the ruling, saying it imposes a responsibility on property owners “to make a reasonable effort to remove the snow and the hazards of freezing snow and ice.”

“The jury decides what’s reasonable,” he said. “It’s a great decision for the state of Massachusetts. It’s in the interest of public safety.”

But Martin Rooney, who co-wrote a friend-of-the-court brief for the Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association supporting Target and the snow removal contractor, said the ruling does not make it clear how quickly property owners are required to remove snow. He said the ruling is bound to encourage more lawsuits against property owners.

“How aggressive do you have to be to remove the snow? Is it reasonable to wait an hour, a day or the next morning? These are all the arguments we are going to have to make with juries,” Rooney said.

James Scamby, an attorney for Target and Weiss, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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