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Skating Through Snow and Ice Mishaps - A Primer in Massachusetts’ Premises Liability Law

November 17, 2021
January 27, 2021

Massachusetts has a similar negligence standard to Connecticut but has different laws as applied to landowners in snow and ice liability cases. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) abolished the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice in premises liability cases, abolishing the prior standard whereby owners of land could not be found liable for any natural accumulations of snow and ice. Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368 (2010). After Papadopoulos, Massachusetts courts “apply to hazards arising from snow and ice the same obligation that a property owner owes to lawful visitors as to all other hazards: a duty to ‘act as a reasonable person under all the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk.’” Id. at 383. According to the SJC, this new rule will not impose a “special burden on property owners.  If a property owner knows or reasonably should know of a dangerous condition on its property, whether arising from an accumulation of snow or ice, or rust on a railing, or a discarded banana peel, the property owner owes a duty to lawful visitors to make reasonable efforts to protect lawful visitors against the danger.” Id. Regarding the removal of snow or ice, the SJC noted that its ruling would not impose unreasonable maintenance burdens on landowners.  “The duty of reasonable care does not make a property owner an insurer of its property; ‘nor does it impose unreasonable maintenance burdens.’” Id. at 384. According to the SJC:

“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.” Id. (citation omitted).

The SJC cautioned, however, that it is not reasonable “for a property owner to leave snow or ice on a walkway where it is reasonable to expect that a hardy New England visitor would choose to risk crossing the snow or ice rather than turn back or attempt an equally or more perilous walk around it.” Id. at 379 (citing Soederberg v. Concord Greene Condo. Ass’n, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 333, 338-39 (2010) (“Our case law is replete with examples of people who, upon encountering snow or ice hazards, nevertheless continued to venture forward in the belief that they could do so safely if they proceeded with care.”)). The key theme from Papadopoulos is that the duty owed by a property owner is one of reasonable care. The Papadopoulos court acknowledged that ongoing storm conditions should be considered when determining the reasonableness of a landowner’s effort to treat and remove snow and ice. We note that establishing an ongoing storm defense is a fact-intensive exercise and will still rely on a jury’s determination as to the reasonableness of the property owner.

M.G.L. c. 84 §§ 18 and 21

This statute provides that any person injured as a result of snow and ice must give written notice to the property owner within thirty (30) days with identification of the name and place of residence of the person injured and the time, place, and cause of such injury. If the injured party fails to provide timely notice, the statute can be used as a defense only if the defendant can show that it was prejudiced by such delay.

It is important in Massachusetts snow and ice cases to determine when notice of the injury first occurred and if that notice complied with the statute. If not, then a defense under this statute can be asserted by the defendant.