Winter in New England, a right of passage we all endure every year. No one can claim to be a real New Englander without going through a handful of winters full of blizzards, wind, and freezing temperatures. Cleaning off your car, shoveling the sidewalks and stairs, and salting or sanding the ice are all tenets of our yearly winter ritual. While many of us are used to the cold, snow, and ice, it is important to know what happens when those conditions result in an injury. In the first part of a two-part series, we will discuss what duty you owe as a property owner to others entering your property and what happens in the event someone is injured as a result of a fall on snow or ice.
Under Massachusetts law, all property owners (commercial and residential) and landlords are legally responsible for snow and ice removal from their property. While each town and city has its own specific codes (and we encourage you to take a look at your city or town’s requirements), it is important to know the state law establishing this minimum. This means that any publicly-accessible areas, e.g., sidewalks or walkways, driveways, parking lots, etc., must be free of snow and “de-iced.”
This is a relatively new law, coming into effect on the heels of a 2010 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruling that overturned 125 years of precedent of unnatural vs. natural snow accumulation. The arcane distinction aside, the takeaway is that the SJC prioritized safety of guests and visitors. (That case was Papadopoulos v. Target Corp, which dragged snow and ice law into the 21st century. It got rid of the rule that a “natural accumulation” of snow means that a property owner wasn’t responsible for someone’s injury.).
Oftentimes, property owners, usually commercial or landlords, elect to hire a 3rd party to perform the snow and ice removal. In these instances, if you are the property owner, it is important to know two (2) things. First, simply hiring a 3rd party to remove snow and ice does not necessarily absolve you of any liability. Said another way, if someone slips on ice and injures themselves, both you, the property owner, and the 3rd party may be liable for that injury.
This brings us to our second thing to know. When hiring a 3rd party, it is important to have a contract that lays out the responsibilities of both parties. For example, many of these contracts call for snow plowing, salting, and sanding, only if 2 inches or more of snow are expected. However, even a coating of snow can develop into treacherous conditions. As a property owner, that’s still your responsibility.
At the same time, many of these contracts have clauses that state who will not only pay for injuries that occur, but also for the cost of the defense. Called a “tender,” we often send letters to property owners only for it to be forwarded to an insurance company for the landscaping company responsible for plowing and sanding.
Another significant SJC case was handed down in 2020 regarding what is known as the “Warranty of Habitability.” (You can read the full description of this case in a prior blog post here). In summary, the SJC found that an ice or snow-induced slip and fall injury did not invoke the warranty of habitability, but rather that of negligence. This is significant because under negligence, the injured person may bear some of the fault, thereby reducing damages owed.
If someone is injured due to slipping on snow or ice on your property, they have to provide you with notice of their injury within thirty (30) days. If they fail to provide you with this notice, they will be unable to file a claim against you if you are prejudiced, which is a high hurdle to jump over. If you’ve fallen on snow or ice, it’s important to seek out an experienced lawyer as soon as possible.