Marie posted a link to the boston.com story about today’s historic decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Papadopoulos v Target Corporation. The case involves not a controversial social issue but the nuances of tort law, but it’s repercussions for property owners are far-reaching.
Mr Papadopoulos was shopping at the Target store at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers. Returning to his car, he slipped and fell on some ice in the parking lot. Since the late 1800s, the law (found in court decisions, not legislative statutes) has been that a land owner owes a duty to safe guard people on his property from injuries caused by “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice, but has no duty regarding the “natural” accumulation of snow and ice. If you don’t get the distinction, don’t worry. I’ve been trying to figure it out since law school 27 years ago.
With today’s decision, the SJC jettisoned a century of precedent that didn’t make a lot of sense and replaced it with the standard property owner’s obligation of reasonable care to protect anyone on the property from injury caused by any snow or ice, natural or unnatural. Here’s some of the key language from the decision:
We now 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 probably seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk. . . Under this traditional premises liability standard, a fact finder will determine what snow and ice removal efforts are reasonable in light of the expense they impose on the landowner and the probability and seriousness of the foreseeable harm to others. . . . 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.
It will take a while for the courts to flush out the full meaning of these words, but any property owner this winter who doesn’t clear a sidewalk of snow or any contractor who plows a driveway but leaves snow banks blocking the sidewalk, leaves themselves open to significant liability. On behalf of all winter-time walkers in the Commonwealth, thanks SJC for a beneficial decision.