Snow And Ice Slip-and-Fall Lawsuits

The page on slip-and-fall accidents caused by snow and ice is part of a series of articles on slip-and-fall liability by the Boston slip-and-fall lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.

In Massachusetts, and New England as a whole, snow and ice are responsible for many slip-and-fall injuries.

But perhaps because of old Yankee miserliness, it was virtually impossible, until the last decade, to win a lawsuit for slipping and falling on snow or ice. This was because of something called the “natural accumulation” rule. Under the natural accumulation rule, if the snow were left to lay where it had fallen the property owner was excused from liability. Only if the property owner had actually directed the accumulation to the spot where someone eventually injured himself could a slip-and-fall victim recover. The “natural accumulation” rule was such a legal outlier that legal treatises often referred to it as “the Massachusetts rule.”

But in 2010, in the landmark case of Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court abolished the “natural accumulation” rule in favor of a reasonableness standard: property owners are expected to take reasonable steps to prevent slip-and-falls on snow and ice.

What is reasonable? The Supreme Judicial Court provided some guidance: “a fact finder will determine what snow and ice removal efforts are reasonable in light of the expense they impose on the landowner and the probability and seriousness of the foreseeable harm to others. The duty of reasonable care does not make a property owner an insurer of its property; ‘nor does it impose unreasonable maintenance burdens.’ 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.” Papadopoulos, 457 Mass. at 384.

Placing different obligations for snow removal on different kinds of properties (e.g., businesses and small homes) is entirely sensible and is part of a larger historical trend recognizing that liability for landowners should not hinge on hard-and-fast legal rules (such as the “natural accumulation rule”) but instead should depend upon the purposes for which the property is used. Historically speaking, the legal rules for injuries occurring due to dangerous conditions on a property heavily favored landowners. This made some sense in a rural, agrarian society where landowners might own large tracts of land. If you own large tracts of land, you probably are not aware of all of the dangers on your property and the burden of minimizing those dangers might be oppressive. But in a commercial establishment, like a retail store, the property owner probably is aware of the dangers on his property, such as snow and ice, and can address them. Indeed, the property owner should address such dangers because he profits precisely by inviting people to come onto his land (unlike the farmer who does not profit by inviting people onto his land).

In addition to having an overarching duty to undertake “reasonable” efforts at snow removal, property owners may also have very concrete duties to effect snow removal of certain kinds. For instance, Chapter II of the State Sanitary Code, codified at 105 C.M.R. 410.452 provides: “The owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice, provided however, in those instances where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written agreement so states, the occupant is responsible for maintaining free of snow and ice, the means of egress under his or her exclusive control.” (Emphasis added). Note that, unlike a reasonableness standard, this obligation codified in the State Sanitary Code is unwavering and does not consider costs and benefits: owners shall keep means of egress from residential properties free of snow and ice, period.

One interesting question that is going to arise in the wake of the Papadopoulos case is how soon, after snow begins to fall property owners should be held responsible for removing it. Footnote 17 of the Papadopoulos case notes that perhaps should be the case that, “in the absence of unusual circumstances, a property owner, in fulfilling the duty owed to invitees upon his property to exercise reasonable diligence in removing dangerous accumulations of snow and ice, may await the end of a storm and a reasonable time thereafter before removing ice and snow from outside walks and steps.” But as the Supreme Judicial Court noted in Papadopoulos, “Because the plaintiff here did not slip on snow or ice during a snow storm, we need not and do not decide today whether we agree with this interpretation of the duty of reasonable care.” Someday, however, the Court will have to confront the question and, when it does, it will likely apply the same reasonableness analysis that examines the type of property in involved, the type of potential injuries and the costs of snow removal.

As you can see, slip-and-falls on snow and ice can involve complicated questions under Massachusetts law. That’s why, if you or someone in your family has been injured on someone else’s property – whether as a customer, guest, or employee – as a result of a slip and fall on snow or ice, you should contact an experienced personal injury attorney for a free consultation about your rights and what legal remedies your situation might entitle you to.

The Boston slip-and-fall lawyers at THE LAW OFFICE OF ALAN H. CREDE, P.C., hope you found this guide to snow and ice slip-and-falls useful. However, you should not rely upon it as a legal opinion. The law changes quite often and the outcomes of many cases turn upon seemingly minor factual differences. If you fell in an accident caused by snow or ice, please contact a personal injury lawyer immediately.