Slip-and-fall defense takes a spill

Law of the Land

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 19, 2011

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Law of the Land

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News™

In December 2002, Emanuel Papadopoulos drove into and parked his car in the parking lot next to the Target department store at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Mass.

Though it was not snowing or raining at the time, the temperature was below freezing and the snow had been recently plowed into a pile on the median next to the disabled parking space in which Papadopoulos parked.

Papadopoulos did his shopping at Target, then returned to the parking lot where he slipped and fell on ice that had naturally accumulated on the pavement, which had either refrozen from melted runoff or had simply slipped off the snow pile on the median.

Under well-settled Massachusetts law, property owners could not be held liable for personal injuries incurred by visitors and guests to their property that arise from the owners' "failure to remove natural accumulations of snow and ice." Because this rule of law was unique among snowy New England states, it was widely referred to as "the Massachusetts rule."

Citing the Massachusetts rule, the trial court dismissed Papadopoulos' case, finding that Target and its snow removal contractor could not be held liable for his injuries resulting from the natural accumulation of ice.

Papadopoulos appealed all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The highest court of the state traced the legal roots of the Massachusetts rule all the way back to 1865 and explored the legal developments in this field of law since that time.

The court concluded that, ultimately, the rule that property owners should not be held liable for natural accumulations of snow and ice resulted from reasoning that property owners could be held liable only for property defects, and that natural accumulations of snow and ice were not property defects because they were not created by the property owner.

The court pointed out that in slip-and-fall cases unrelated to snow and ice, the property owner would be held liable under Massachusetts law for a dangerous condition they know or should have known about, like a banana peel left on the floor by another customer, whether or not the property owner created the hazard.

The court went on to declare that the Massachusetts rule's distinction between natural and unnatural or man-created accumulations of snow and ice must be discarded entirely -- both in this case and in Massachusetts law going forward.

Because the Massachusetts rule creates an unjustifiable "exception to the general rule of premises liability that a property owner owes a duty to all lawful visitors to use reasonable care to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances," it was not "based upon proper considerations," the court held.

The court rejected two primary justifications that Target had offered in support of the Massachusetts rule. First, the fact that snow is as "open and obvious" to a visitor as it is to the owner should not exempt the property's owner from practicing reasonable care, the court opined, especially where visitors are particularly likely to brave the hazard even if they see it.

In fact, the court explained, "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."

The second rationale, that it is impractical or impossible for Massachusetts property owners to maintain their properties in safe condition, free of snow and ice, during the winter, also failed; the court found that every other court in states with identical New England wintry climates had rejected this reasoning, imposing this duty on property owners in every other New England state.

Additionally, the Massachusetts rule was ripe for rejection because of the confusion it created in the courts charged with interpreting it; they were charged with determining whether the snow or ice hazard was natural or man-made, versus the much more manageable judicial determination of the property owners' negligence (or lack thereof).

Accordingly, the Massachusetts rule was rejected and reversed, and applied retroactively to this case based on the court's finding that the rule had likely not been factored into Target's insurance coverage or snow removal decision-making (Massachusetts building codes already required property owners to keep entries and exits free of snow and ice).

The lower court ruling dismissing Papadopoulos' case was reversed and the lower court ordered to reconsider its ruling in light of the reversal of the Massachusetts rule.

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