Lawyer Alert! SJC Abolishes Distinction on Unnatural Accumlation of Snow and Ice

Retroactive Ruling Sets Broader Standard of Care for All Injuries Caused by Snow or Ice; Cases Will be Decided Under "Reasonable Person" Standard

In a landmark decision this morning, the Supreme Judicial Court, abolished the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice, replacing it with the standard rule of reasonable care for all property owners. The court reversed the summary judgment for the commercial landowner and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The case arose from an accident at a department store. The plaintiff parked in a handicapped parking place, passed a pile of snow which had been plowed, and did his shopping. On his way back to his car, the plaintiff fell on ice which had either fallen from the pile or accumulated as a result of melting from the pile, later re-freezing. The trial court ruled that the accumulation was natural and granted summary judgment for the defendant store and landscaping company. The Appeals Court affirmed. The SJC took the matter on further appellate review and invited briefs on whether it should reconsider the long-standing doctrine concerning unnatural versus natural accumulations of snow.

In its decision the court reflected on how the Massachusetts doctrine of unnatural accumulation had risen from landlord-tenant relations dating back to the 1800s, and how the doctrine had survived the period of "reconsideration and reform" between 1973 and 1980, when many important tort cases were decided. The court also reflected on how the surviving distinction had led to complexity and confusion. The court considered and rejected the rationale offered by the defendants and their amicus for preserving the rule.

The new rule has an extremely broad sweep. The court wrote, "We now will 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 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.'" (Court citations are omitted.) Thus, the reasonable person standard now applies to all snow and ice cases.

The final aspect of the case was whether the ruling should be prospective or retroactive. The court concluded that there would be relatively little hardship or inequity from a retroactive application of the new rule and announced that its ruling should be applied retroactively.

The case is Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, SJC-10529 (July 26, 2010). The full text of the decision can be found by clicking here.

Comment

The unanimous decision of the court, authored by Justice Gants, clears away decades of confusion and unfairness for injured plaintiffs. The new rule announced today will not just treat injured persons more fairly; it will also increase public safety by heightening the duty on all landowners to be more careful and more thoughtful about safety on their premises. We applaud the SJC opinon.

Massachusetts Injury Lawyer Blog
Client Reviews
David really cared about me as an individual…and he really cared about seeking the justice that needed to be sought in the case.
★★★★★
Ron got the insurance company to settle for the maximum on the policy. And so as a result of that, my son went back to school.
★★★★★
Marc just guided us through the whole process. He told us exactly what would happen and how we needed to go about doing everything.
★★★★★
I would recommend David…The outcome of my case, I was very pleased with it. I hope I don't have another accident, but if I do we'll be back to see David.
★★★★★
Ron was excellent. He was on top of everything. He answered every question.
★★★★★
Marc was extremely professional. I felt very confident that he knew exactly what he was doing. This is his area of practice and I had total confidence in him and I actually have recommended him to other people who have been in accidents.
★★★★★