Negligence and Winter in New England

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.

This dramatic change in the law has been met with significant criticism from many entities including landlords, business owners and insurance companies who bear the financial burden of compensating injured persons who fall on accumulations of snow and ice.  But ultimately it is because we in New England are lucky enough to have different seasons with different weather that the court decided to eliminate immunity for landlords during one of those seasons.  In quoting the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, our highest court noted:

We believe that today a landlord, armed with ample supply of salt, sand,
scrapers, shovels and even perhaps a snow blower, can acquit himself quite
admirably as he takes to the common passageways to do battle with the fallen
snow, the sun melted snow now turned to ice, or the frozen rain.  We fail to
see the rationale for a rule which grants seasonal exemption from liability to
a landlord because he has failed to take adequate precautions against the hazards
that can arise from the presence of unshoveled snow or unsanded or salt-free ice
found in the areas of his responsibility but yet hold him liable on a year round
basis for other types of defects attributable to the workings of Mother Nature in
the very same portions of his property.

Papadopoulos, at 380, citing, Fuller v. Housing Auth. Of Providence, 108 R.I. 770, 773 (1971).

Winter in New England can be dangerous as we venture out in the conditions to do our jobs and provide for our families.  Unfortunately, snow and ice can cause serious injuries and have a life-long impact on our families, friends and neighbors.  Holding property owners responsible when they are negligent is purpose of tort law.

The lawyers at HBMHlaw have extensive experience with cases involving injuries resulting from winter in New England.  If you or a loved one have been injured due to the negligence of someone else, please call for a free consultation about your situation.

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