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Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, Supreme Judicial Court

In a decision overturning 125 years of legal precedent, the SJC abolished the legal distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice when determining liability issues.  Formerly, a property owner was only liable for slip and falls caused by unnatural accumulations of snow and ice (such as those caused by plowed snow).  Sullivan v. Brookline, 416 Mass. 825 (1994)(holding that natural accumulations of snow and ice were not a defect).  The SJC imposed the usual obligation of reasonable care upon property owners that applies for all other hazards on their property. 

Facts – The plaintiff was returning to his vehicle from the Target at the Liberty Tree Mall when he slipped on a patch of ice frozen to the pavement adjacent to his vehicle. The trial court judge granted summary judgment to Target on the grounds the ice patch was a natural accumulation of snow and ice.   

Holding and Decision – The court noted that over the years, Massachusetts has essentially abolished the use of varying standards of care based upon the status of the visitor. The court noted that the natural accumulation rule arose out of a landlord’s former duty to tenants. That former duty was to remove hazardous conditions negligently caused by the landlord, but not for removing obstructions arising from natural causes or other hazardous conditions not caused by the landlord. Now, a landlord owes a tenant the same duty of reasonable care as he does to an invitee.   Abolition of the distinction of natural and unnatural accumulations is consistent with the court’s recent jurisprudence on standards of care. 

The court stated that a landlord has duty to remedy a known defect on the property whether it is caused by another person (the dropping of the proverbial banana peel in the supermarket) or by an act of nature. In addition, the court dismissed Target’s argument regarding the open and obvious defense. “A property owner is not relieved from remedying an open and obvious danger where it can and should anticipate that the dangerous condition will cause physical harm to a lawful visitor.”  The court also noted that all other New England states had abandoned the natural accumulation theory. 

“We now will apply to hazards arising from snow and ice the same obligation that a property owner owed to lawful visitors as to all other hazards: a duty to act as a reasonable person under all of the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk.” The court agreed to apply the holding retroactively as well. 

TH Note – This decision was not a surprise given the nature of the tide of premises liability law over the last twenty years. On the one hand, the decision does remove the quirky and difficult to establish issue of natural vs. unnatural accumulations. However, the decision is a clear victory for the plaintiffs’ bar in that it removes a legal hurdle plaintiffs usually need to cross in these types of cases. Practically speaking, snow and ice cases will become mostly questions for the jury regarding the reasonableness of a landlord’s snow removal practices.   Municipalities should be more vigilant in their snow removal going forward. It remains to be seen the extent to which landlords must go to satify the reasonable level of care during periods of snow and ice. Fully aware of the myriad of factual circumstances snow and ice cases present, the court avoided answering the general question of how liability shall be established in such cases going forward.   My major criticism is the court's comparison of snow and ice cases to the banana peel example.  The difference obviously is that the banana peels do not keep falling. 

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massmuniblog
Timothy J. Harrington

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