The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today eliminated the ancient distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of ice and snow, making property owners liable for injuries caused by their negligent creation or failure to eliminate both kinds of winter hazards.
Calling the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of ice and snow a “relic” derived from old cases, which “has sown confusion and conflict in our case law,” the Court in Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation discarded it and stated: “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.'”
In the past, people who slipped and fell on ice or snow that had fallen or accumulated naturally and which remained untouched by the owner were unable to recover from the owner for their injuries. A property owner was better off not shoveling or plowing the snow or salting or sanding the ice. Over time, this concept was applied expansively to include even natural snow that had been plowed into a pile or ice which was uncovered by the shoveling efforts of the owner. Indeed, in the Papadopoulos case, the trial judge ruled that the defendant was not liable when the plaintiff tripped on a chunk of ice that had fallen from a plowed up snow bank or a patch of refrozen runoff from the snow pile, because those were “natural” accumulations even though they resulted from the plowing of the parking lot.
The SJC applied the new rule “retroactively”, that is, to any cases currently pending or yet to be filed, even if the injury has already occurred, so long as they have not gone to final judgment or the statute of limitations has not expired.
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