The highest court in Massachusetts has ruled that property owners potentially can be held liable for snow-related injuries whether the accumulations are caused by Mother Nature or by plows.
In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court eliminated a longheld distinction in state law between "natural" and "unnatural" accumulations of snow and ice.
The court ruled in the case of Emanuel Papadopoulos of Peabody, who broke his pelvis in 2002 when he slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot of the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers in front of a Target department store.
The parking lot had been cleared, but a pile of snow had been plowed onto a median strip. After leaving the store to return to his car, Papadopoulos slipped on ice on the pavement.
For more than a century, case law in Massachusetts held that property owners who failed to remove natural accumulations could not be held liable. But the court found that owners have a duty to keep property reasonably safe.
David Frank, a reporter for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, says Monday's ruling could affect past incidences as well.
"What the court has said today is that this decision applies retroactively," Frank said. "So there could be a situation from last winter where someone was injured on snow or ice and this decision would seemingly open the door to a lawsuit."
Frank also indicated that there's a relative gray area with regard to what constitutes "on-time" snow removal.
"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," he 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."
This program aired on July 26, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.