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Are You Aware the Standard of Care Required for Removing Snow and Ice from Your Massachusetts’ Property Changed in 2010? — Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation

Photo: Snow Shovel by Mattox at StockExchange

Photo: Snow Shovel by Mattox at StockExchange

As difficult as this may be to read, do not yet put away the snow shovels. The recent snow storms and bitter cold show that Cape Cod still has some winter left. Even Punxsutawney Phil predicted another six weeks of winter.

Property owners have a duty of care to maintain their property in a safe manner free from the hazards that may injure lawful entrants. Massachusetts courts have long struggled with slip and fall cases when it comes to ice and snow during the winter months. It would be near impossible to keep a property free from all ice and snow. However, some property owners’ lack of removal is clearly negligent. If you have been injured by the hazardous conditions on the property of another person or business, your are encouraged to speak with a local premises liability lawyer to see if you can get the compensation needed for your recovery.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the old court rule for slip and fall cases. Prior to 2010, Massachusetts courts made a distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice. Property owners were not responsible for natural accumulations of snow and ice. The rule had such a firm establishment that law schools and treatises across the country referred to the rule as the “Massachusetts rule.”

Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation was the case ending the rule. In Papadopoulos, a Target store customer slipped on a patch of ice while walking to his vehicle. Target had plowed the parking lot, leaving a large embankment of snow. Neither party disputed the fact that the ice patch came from the embankment either from a chunk of ice falling off the embankment or from snow melt from the embankment. The lower court had ruled that the patch of ice occurred because of a natural accumulation of ice and dismissed the case. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SCT”) disagreed and ended the rule.

The rule had been justified because a natural accumulation of snow or ice would be as “open and obvious” to a property owner as it would be to a lawful entrant. However, the SCT found that the rule created conflict and confusion. Courts struggled with cases when a dangerous natural accumulation had been left for long periods time or when lawful entrants had no alternative but to cross a natural accumulation. The court felt that a property owner should not be absolved of the duty of care simply because the snow or ice naturally accumulated.

In cases like Papadopoulos, courts struggled with cases where the accumulation had a combination of natural and unnatural causes. Some courts did not want to penalize property owners like Target for taking the effort to remove the hazard when nature created another hazard. However, other courts felt this conflicted with the long standing principal in tort law that when a party that begins to mitigate a hazard that party has a higher duty to prevent harms caused by the mitigation.

In removing the rule, the SCT announced that courts should apply the same reasonable care standard as applied to other property defects. If the property owner knows or reasonably should have known of a dangerous condition from snow and ice on its property, the property owner has a duty to take reasonable steps to remove the hazard and protect lawful entrants. The judge or jury should determine the reasonableness of snow and ice weighing the foreseeability of harm to lawful entrants against the burdens and expenses required by the property owner.

When answering the question of whether you should remove snow and ice on your property, as far as premises liability goes, the old answer would have depended on whether the snow or ice accumulated naturally or by human action. After Papadopoulos, the fact that the question is being asked probably evinces some awareness of harm. To be safe, the snow and ice should be removed not just because of a potential lawsuit but out of respect for our fellow citizens and neighbors.

Injuries caused by slip and falls can have negative repercussions on someone’s life. If you have suffered injury due to the hazardous condition on the property of another, you should speak with an experienced local premises liability lawyer.

Local attorney, John C. Manoog III, has extensive experience handling personal injury claims. For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or reach us by email. There is always someone available to talk to you about your case. 

Additional Resources:

Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, Feb. 8, 2010, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Slip and fall, 2014, Wikipedia

Massachusetts Law About Snow and Ice, 2014, Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries

More Blog Entries:
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Rules Property Owner May Be Liable for Certain Open and Obvious Hazards — Dos Santos v. Coleta, Nov. 27, 2013, Cape Cod Injury Lawyer Blog

Court Orders Parties in a Slip-and-Fall Case to Hire a Neutral “Computer Expert” to Examine Plaintiff’s Facebook, May 27, 2013, Cape Cod Injury Lawyer Blog