Owners of property and persons in control of property have a responsibility under the law to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. Now that winter is approaching, questions arise as to the responsibility of property owners, landlords and business owners to clear snow and ice on their properties.
Beginning in 1883 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court began to analyze the duty of a landlord to a tenant who fell in a common area. From this earliest decision arose what other states and commentators have called the “Massachusetts Rule.” This rule provided that a landlord and others who owned or controlled property could not be held liable for natural accumulations of snow or ice. When snow fell, the landlord or business owner could simply let the snow accumulate without fault. However, owners of land could be found liable if a person was injured on the property due to an unnatural accumulation of snow or ice. One of the earlier decisions in Massachusetts involved a tenant that slipped and fell on ice in a common area of a tenement house. In this case, the accumulation of ice was created by a broken water pipe. The court imposed liability for the landlord’s failure to fix the pipe “for which he was as much responsible as if he had placed the water there by his voluntary act.” Watkins v. Goodall, 138 Mass. 533, 537 (1885).
For over 100 years this distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice served as the basis for deciding whether an owner of land could be found responsible for the harms and losses of people who were injured due to winter conditions. However in 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010), eliminated this distinction and held that there exists for “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.” In other words, a landowner owes a duty of reasonable care for all conditions on his/her property.