Icy Sidewalks Ruling Could Be A Slippery Slope

A pedestrian slips on an icy sidewalk in Montpelier, Vt., in this December 2009 file photo. (Toby Talbot/AP)

A pedestrian slips on an icy sidewalk in Montpelier, Vt., in this December 2009 file photo. (Toby Talbot/AP)

BOSTON — There could be an increase in slip-and-fall lawsuits in Massachusetts, come winter.

The state Supreme Judicial Court has reversed a centuries-old understanding about when property owners can be held liable for someone getting hurt on ice or snow.

Sure, temperatures are in the 80s lately and nobody is thinking about shoveling snow. But this ruling will matter when, in three or four months, the white stuff falls again on New England. And some people won’t shovel enough, or at all.

That puts people like Bostonian Chase Wickersham in a quiet rage.

“Storms last for two weeks here… They shovel their sidewalk — what, once? — and then they leave it for the rest of the 13 days,” Wickersham said. “And it’s just ice. I mean you can see it, walking down the street sometimes.”

Yes, it’s infuriating. Monday’s ruling could address Wickersham’s complaint: that, even if they do shovel, people all-too-often fail to maintain clean walkways.

The parking lot had been plowed, but some of the runoff refroze. Papadopoulos slipped. Papadopoulos sued.

Way back in 1883, a woman sued her landlord after slipping on the icy steps of her apartment building. The court ruled the landlord had made a reasonable effort to clear the steps and could not be liable for the “natural accumulation” of ice that followed.

That decision opened a tiny tort loophole known as “the Massachusetts rule.”

Fast forward to December 2002. Emanuel Papadopoulos parks his car at a Target store in Danvers. The parking lot had been plowed. But some of the runoff refroze.

Papadopoulos slipped. Papadopoulos sued.

Target invoked “the Massachusetts rule” and won the case. But on Monday, the state’s highest court stepped in — overturning that rule and siding with Papadopoulos.

In the ruling, Justice Ralph Gants wrote,

We do not accept this rationale where a property owner knows or has reason to know that a banana peel has been left on a floor by a careless customer; we have long held that the property owner has a duty to keep the property reasonably safe …

In other words, it doesn’t matter how the ice got there, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to clear it in a reasonable amount of time.

But attorney David Frank of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly points out the court did not define “reasonable amount of time.”

The court’s point is this: No more excuses for icy sidewalks.

“If you have a situation where you let snow sit there for weeks, as opposed to hours that’s going to be an easier case,” Frank said. “But when you get down to whether a day is enough or two days is enough, that’ll have to be worked out as we move through.”

And a new gray area appears. But the court’s point is this: No more excuses for icy sidewalks. Massachusetts finally joins every other Supreme Court in New England in seeing that way. Take this Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling nearly 40 years ago:

A landlord, armed with an ample supply of salt, sand, scrapers, shovels and even perhaps a snow blower, can acquit himself quite admirably as he takes to the common passageways to do battle with the fallen snow.

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  • Adria

    Americans are trigger happy to sue everyone and everything. I swear they’d sue a black cat if it crossed their path.

  • Ellen

    Simple answer. Appeal to your state representative and senators to rewrite the law. If you don’t like the law have it changed. Geesh. Everyone runs around like Henny Penny, instead of using the system to resolve the problem.

  • Pam

    Here’s a interesting scenario — I live in a three-apartment building where two apartments have a lease. In that lease it says they are responsible for snow shoveling. I’m a tenant-at-will and don’t have that in a lease, but it’s understood. However, some people who have the lease never help with the shoveling. Who is responsible for the snow on the property — the tenants? The property owner? Sticky area.

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/aphelps Andrew Phelps

    This just in: Supreme Court rules black cats are liable for bad luck incurred.

  • geffe

    In the case of a rental property I’m pretty sure the owner not the person renting is libel. I had a friend who use to work for this landlord and part of his job was to clear the sidewalks and walkways. As far as the landlord was concerned he was libel if anyone slipped on his property. That included tenants.

    This is a silly law however and there is a lot of common sense that should be taken into consideration. I predict a lot of bad law suits because of this. The only people to benefit from this are lawyers and fraudsters.

  • Eva

    This is a completely idiotic ruling, and I hope that Target will take it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (which can be expected to rule in favor of the corporation, and for once they would be right).

    Shoveling is one thing, but it is physically impossible for property owners to always prevent ice formation from melted snow. Also, ice melters are hard on the environment; we can’t afford to use them on a wide scale without harming trees and other vegetation, as well as ground water that eventually finds its way to drinking water supplies (not to mention the unnecessary costs of such overuse).

    In wintertime, people venturing outside should wear special anti-slipping straps that you put on your shoes/boots. They are made of rubber, with metal elements that give you excellent grip on ice. I bought two pairs last winter for about $8 each.

    I am a liberal, but based on this piece of news I can see why some people are afraid of government regulation and interference. This ruling is a bad joke.

  • fran

    Crooked lawyers on the bench helping crooked lawyers in the court room.

  • boblothrope

    I will write to my state legislators. But I really doubt I’ll have more influence in the legislature than the trial lawyer lobby.

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/aphelps Andrew Phelps

    Great comments, all. I included many of them in this Hubbub roundup: http://wbur.org/2010/07/27/slippery-debate

  • Lisa

    So where does the accountability and liability stop? If I invite my bridge group for evening bridge and one of them slips on our front steps, can they sue me for not removing enough ice for them? How about the UPS guy dropping of a package, and slips on ice the formed while I am at work? I tend to agree with the person who suggests personal accountability for your own mishaps – wear appropriate footwear for the weather and potential ice. Even if you sue, it’s your body you are putting at risk and causing potential permanent harm, and you only get one of those.

  • Frank

    I was involved as a witness in a similar case in Wisconsin. We were staying at a bed-and-breakfast north of Milwaukee. The couple who owned it were so manic about snow removal, we would joke about it. We came back from dinner one night; there was a dusting on the driveway, and I said “Elley must be out shopping!”

    A random realtor who was “interested in looking at the property” (NOT a guest at the B&B) had come onto the property without notice or permission, and had allegedly slipped and fallen on “a heavily ice-covered mat” at the bottom of the front steps. No one saw her fall; she came to the door, complaining about the ice.

    When we were asked to be defense witnesses and told the circumstances, we laughed out loud.

  • Joe Mash

    Adria! Can you sue the owners of a black cat for not controlling it? and it crossed my path and then…?

  • http://chelseama.gov Karen Budrow

    I never thought I owned the sidewalk. It’s a surprise to me if I do. How can I be held liable for its clearing if it is property I do not own?

  • David McLaughlin

    If you slip on the sidewalk you can sue the owner. This is insane. What if it is at the curb, on the street? Maybe I should sue the owner across the street he may have more assets. If I am responsible for the sidewalk then I should be able to restrict access like any other private property. If it isn’t private proerty then I cannot be held liable. The towns and cities are the problem. As a property owner in MA I am taxed without representation. I am a responsible owner. I maintain my proerties but I expect the city to take care of its property like I take care of mine,I do not own the sidewalk or the curbs or the street. This ruling was against a store that in all probability owned the parking area where this person fell. That seems reasonable that they should have provided some care to the grounds. However if the lot was plowed and ice formed after a melt during the day when does reasonable time come in to repair the problem. I believe this is a bad ruling and that it should be moved to a higher court.

  • Nanciee

    Its about time someone protects the consumer. I am an elderly woman and find it hard to walk in the snow and sleet. My sister fell this past winter in a store in Lowell and the store owner didn’t believe her and said the security cameras were not working. She does not use the internet so I had to find http://www.slipandfallattorney.com to help her out with her medical and insurance. Young people don’t think about us anymore. We are people too and we paid taxes all of our life.

    • MsREal_Deal

      Slip and Fall What a Joke Ive fell split my head open in the street did I sue Massachusettes NO people have no back bone Land Of The Sue

  • Vjack68

    So can I charge a toll to everyone who walks on “my sidewalk”

  • MsReal_DEal

    How are you suppose to clear up ice if its -5 degrees out and you keep thrwoing salt but theres a huge snow bank on the corner and as thats melting its forming ice in the park n lot how stare at all day and throw salt people are always looking for easy cash just tell the owner to pay the hospital bill and call it a day

  • MsReal_DEal

    Oh and by The way stay home if your over 50 or wear some boots LL Bean sells great ones Not sneakers

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