When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the case of Papadopoulos v. Target Corp.,
357 Mass. 368 (2011), they probably never envisioned that the winter of 2010-2011 was going to be a contender for the record books. The ruling was a major change in personal injury law for Massachusetts, and all residents and businesses are affected.
The SJC reversed over 100 years of jurisprudence, abolishing the distinction between "natural accumulations" and "unnatural accumulations" of snow and ice. Under the old common law, liability could be found only if the accumulation were unnatural. But now, as in all other premises liability situations, the duty for both natural and unnatural accumulations is the same: the landowner must exercise reasonable care.
The Papadopoulos case arose from an accident on Target’s property. The plaintiff was injured when he slipped on a pile of snow and hurt himself. The Appeals Court affirmed the summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendant, but the SJC granted further appellate review and invited amicus briefs on the issue of ancient rule.
The July 2010 ruling was barely appreciated until the snow started flying in December. Media attention was then focused, and the change in the common law was frequently misconstrued as a new legislative pronouncement that requires snow shoveling and ice removal. Of course, since it is a common law change only; nobody is getting arrested, though a legal duty certainly exists. (However, many municipalities do have snow-shoveling ordinances which can lead to fines.)
The ruling was retroactive, bringing three years of snow and ice accidents back to the claims process.
For more discussion about the ruling, see our web page and the article SJC Abolishes Distinction for Unnatural Accumulation of Snow and Ice.
Breakstone, White and Gluck is a personal injury law firm handling personal injury claims arising from Massachusetts snow and ice accidents.