In the middle of the summer heat, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was deciding whether there is a distinction between a natural and unnatural accumulation of snow. In Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, the plaintiff was injured when he slipped and fell in the parking lot of the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers. He filed suit against Target, the store in front of which he fell, and their snow removal contractors. Initially the jury found in favor of the defendant but the plaintiff appealed. On Appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reviewed the case and determined that there would no longer be a distinction of natural and unnatural accumulation of snow and ice in Massachusetts. Prior to this ground-breaking decision, a plaintiff could only recover if he or she slipped and fell on an unnatural accumulation of snow, that is snow that had been moved or modified in any way such as by plowing or driving over or walking over it. The court also suggested that “the passage of time alone may be sufficient to transform a natural accumulation into an unnatural one.” For example, if snow falls and then the temperature warms and it melts a little and then the temperature drops and the melted snow refreezes, that would present a more hazardous condition than the original snow even though this state occurred naturally.
With this new decision, a property owner is now liable for any hazardous conditions on his or her property whether natural or unnatural and the owner must take reasonable care and has the obligation to make his or her property safe for lawful visitors. This obligation cannot be delegated. While a snow removal company may also be liable for its failure to properly remedy hazardous conditions on the property it has been contracted to clear, the landlord or property owner still has an obligation to oversee and ameliorate any hazardous conditions irrelevant of whether or not he has already hired someone to do so. The mere hiring of a third party for the purpose of snow removal does not exonerate the property owner from liability.
So are you prepared for winter? This doesn’t just apply to large corporations with parking lots or public areas. Make sure you clear your pathways to your front door and salt and sand all walkways on your property. Clear snow and ice from your driveway as soon as possible. If you are unable to do so, hire someone to help you but be sure you are satisfied with their job as you, the property owner, are responsible to do so.