Lawyer Alert! SJC Abolishes Distinction of Unnatural Accumulation 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 Target 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 this ruling. 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.
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 Massachusetts landowners to be more careful and more thoughtful about safety on their premises. We applaud the SJC opinion.
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