With the first snowstorm of the season just passed, many people are thinking about snow and ice removal. Some are property owners wondering what potential liability they might have if a visitor is injured on their land, while others are victims of injuries suffered from a fall. For both categories, it’s important to know what the law requires.
Until three years ago, the law in Massachusetts regarding snow and ice cases was as messy as the Expressway at rush hour in the middle of a snowstorm. The law, so odd and distinct that it was tagged “the Massachusetts Rule,” was that landowners were liable only for injuries resulting from an “unnatural accumulation” of snow and ice. If the injury was caused by a “natural accumulation,” the courts held that Mother Nature, and not the landowner, was to blame.
The two problems with this approach were: 1) that it was difficult to decide what was natural and what was unnatural, and 2) the distinction made no sense in relation to other laws relating to landowner liability. And so it was a great relief when the Supreme Judicial Court decided the case of Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368 (2010). In Papdopoulos, the Court recognized the lack of logic and inconsistency that plagued the existing natural/unnatural distinction and abandoned the distinction in favor of the general rule that a landowner must use reasonable care to keep the property safe. That’s true whether the danger comes from snow, loose railings, poor lighting, or any other common conditions.
But like many things, the devil is in the details. It’s easy to state the rule of reasonable care, but more difficult to apply it in particular situations. Must a property owner start shoveling as soon as the first flake falls? While the storm is raging outside? Are salt or sand required? There are no clear answers to questions like these. That’s why we have juries.
In the vast majority of cases after Papadopoulos, the decision about whether measures taken–or not taken–by a property owner to remove or clear snow and ice from his land were reasonable will be made by a jury. That means it will be important to gather information about when the snow started and stopped, how fast it fell, what the temperatures were between the time of the snow and the time of the injury, as well as any efforts at snow removal or treatment of pavement. Obviously, photographs taken as near as possible to the time of the injury are also important. This type of factual investigation should give both parties the information they need to assess the reasonableness of the owner’s efforts.