Papadopoulos v Target: get your snow shovels ready

Marie posted a link to the 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.

11 Responses to Papadopoulos v Target: get your snow shovels ready

  1. Prince Charming says:

    There are some areas of Lowell that have been given new sidewalks. However, the contractors have “run out of money” and are hydroseeding the new walks. Has anyone ever had to shovel a foot of snow on grass? Wonder what these homeowners’ liability is? Brand new curbing, grass sidewalks. Go figure.

  2. DickH says:

    For all the talk of the “new urbanism” – the retreat from the spread-out-suburbs and the return to the more densely packed city – Lowell shows little desire to be a walker-friendly city. Walking is great exercise, it gives you a chance to connect with your neighbors and your neighborhood, and it might even let you leave your car in the driveway every so often. But here, our sidewalks are anything but smooth surfaces (grass????). Shrubs, branches, barrels and parked cars block your path in the good weather and unshoveled snow drives you into the street in the winter.

  3. Tony says:

    I’m curious if a town will assist in removing snow for the 70 year widow who has 200 feet of sidewalk frontage or is it more cost effective to just have an ambulance pick her up when she collapses.

  4. PaulM says:

    Urban planner Jeff Speck’s group, in collaboration with the Lowell Plan staff and City planners, on Sept. 30 will roll out a blueprint for downtown development that is informed by a desire for more walking, biking, and mass-transit use (trolleys/buses). Stay tuned.

  5. Eleanor Rigby says:

    So far everyone is just assuming that the sidewalk in front of your property is the homeowners responsibility.

    The homeowner, in most cases, does not own the sidewalk, the municipalitiy does so does this mean that the municipality will be responsible?

    If a homeowner is now legally responsible for a community owned sidewalk, including melting and refreezing ice, what is to stop a homeowner from blocking the ‘hazardous’ area to prevent the public from being injured?

    Will this ruling also extend to municipalities that refuse to keep sidewalks in front of public buildings/parks clear of snow and ice?

  6. Robby says:

    In the winter we have come to a complete stop of shoveling our sidewalks for three basic reasons.

    1. The neighbor to the left of us literally moves the snow from his driveways onto the sidewalk itself and creates a 6 foot or higher snowbank.

    2. The neighbor to the right of us has not shovled his since they moved in.

    3. All the people walking in the winter (which is next to no-one) are walking in the street anyway.

    Why should I break my back and waste and hour’s worth of my life when no one will even walk on it and my neighbors don’t have to do thier share?

    Eleanor brings up a good point in regards to responsibility with sidewalks. I don’t see how the homewoner is somehow liable to be responsible for what happens on the sidewalk, which is city property. If we are, then tomorrow our sidewalk is hereby “closed” for safety reasons! Perhaps we will do what that nut in Dracut did and just move our fence up 5 feet and declare the land ours.

    Im kidding, but seriously I cannot see how homeowners and property owners are in anyway liable for what happens on city property.

  7. DickH says:

    It’s not the city’s sidewalk. Like most aspects of property law, it’s complicated. You continue to own the land in front of your house upon which the sidewalk is built. The city installs the sidewalk and the public has the right to pass back and forth upon it (so you can’t legally block it).

    While the city has responsibility for maintaining the sidewalk, you have the duty to keep it free of snow and ice. That may not be a common law rule of property, but it is a city of Lowell ordinance. Section 243-3 states in relevant part:

    “The owner . . . of the land bordering on any public way . . . shall cause all snow and ice . . . to be removed from the sidewalk . . . within 12 hours after the snow has ceased falling . . . Furthermore, said owner . . . shall have a continuing duty to keep said sidewalks . . . free and clear of snow and ice and shall maintain adequate accessibility to said sidewalks . . . from the street.”

    Despite the fact that the city fails to enforce this ordinance, it’s still on the books so if you fail to shovel your sidewalk, you’re in violation of the statute. If someone is injured and sues you, the judge will instruct the jury that “violation of a statute is evidence of negligence” and you can get out your checkbook (whether it’s to pay the damages directly or the lifetime of increased property insurance premiums that will follow).

    As for wintertime walkers, there are plenty of them. Maybe you’re not up early enough or you’ve already left for work before they venture out. Walking in the street in the wintertime is a huge risk that you’ll only take when the sidewalk is even more dangerous. If someone walking by your house is forced into the street because you haven’t cleared your sidewalk and then gets hit by a car, you have a new title – defendant.

  8. Eleanor Rigby says:

    Dick, does the ordinance address the city’s responsibility to keep sidewalks etc located in front of public property clear or is it one of those ‘do as I say not as I do’ laws?

  9. DickH says:

    The ordinance is silent as to the city’s responsibility, but it places the responsibility squarely on the property owner adjacent to the sidewalk. A reasonable interpretation of that would mean that if the city owned the land (like a school or city hall) then the city would be subject to the demands of the ordinance.

  10. rsdman says:

    The Lowell ordinance to remove snow is typically not to provide indicia of negligence. It is a purely cost savings measure to avoid having the town bear the cost of snow removal. Violation of the ordinance cannot be offered as evidence of negligence.