Articles Tagged with slip and fall

In a previous post discussing Premises Liability, we briefly noted two (2) relevant legal doctrines – Attractive Nuisance and Sovereign Immunity. We recently discussed the Attractive Nuisance doctrine, so today will be focusing on the doctrine of Sovereign Immunity and its codification under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

As discussed in previous posts, if you were injured in a car accident or on the property of another, you likely have a cause of action against those persons. However, what happens when the driver of that other car is a government employee or the property you were injured on is a government building? In Massachusetts, it is much harder to file a lawsuit and win when the other party is the government. As you may have guessed, this is due to the aforementioned principle known as Sovereign Immunity.

Sovereign Immunity is a very old legal premise that basically states that the sovereign, i.e., the government in this country, cannot be sued even if an individual is harmed by the acts, decisions, or inactions of the government. It dates back to English law, where people were unable to sue the king. Even in this brief explanation, you can see that this is an exceptionally broad principle that absolves the government of virtually all tortious acts. However, there are limits to Sovereign Immunity. 

In a previous post discussing Premises Liability, we briefly noted two (2) relevant legal doctrines – Attractive Nuisance and Sovereign Immunity. We will address Sovereign Immunity and the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act in a subsequent post, but today we want to discuss the other doctrine: Attractive Nuisance.

Premises Liability, property owners have a duty of reasonable care to anyone entering their property. The highest duty of care is owed to those who have express or implied permission to be on that property, known as invitees and licensees under Massachusetts law.  An example of this are patrons of a restaurant or supermarket. Trespassers are owed the lowest duty, i.e., people who enter a property without permission. A trespasser cannot sue a property owner for injuries suffered on that property except under “unusually dangerous” situations. There is; however, one group of potential trespassers to whom property owners still owe the duty of reasonable care: young children. This is where the doctrine of attractive nuisance applies. Under this doctrine, property owners can still be found liable for injuries caused to a young child, even one who is trespassing. 

Massachusetts defines an attractive nuisance as an artificial condition on the property owner’s land that can “attract” children to trespass onto the land and lead to injury. This means that a natural pond, rock face, or other natural condition on the property is not subject to the laws of attractive nuisance.

Many lawyers use the term “premises liability,” which is a phrase that most people don’t use. Therefore, there’s often a misconception about what the term means. In reality, it’s a way to describe the duty owed by a business or property owner. These claims are a type of a negligence lawsuit, which means the focus of a claim is usually on the duty of care owed and whether or not that duty was breached. For your reference, some common examples of these types of claims include, but are not limited to:

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.). 

The Commonwealth’s top court, the Supreme Judicial Court, gave landlords a bit of a break recently in Goreham v. Martins, 485 Mass. 54, (2020).  The decision involves the “warranty of habitability” and the ways for tenants to recover for personal injuries sustained on their rented premises, including cases for people who slip and fall on snow and ice.

By way of background, an injured person has a claim “in tort”, that is, that someone’s negligence caused the injury.  There are circumstances, however, when the remedy is contract or semi-contract based.  For example, there is a “warranty of merchantability” attached to products.  They have to be fit for the purpose intended.  A table saw that does not have a guard, for example, can be found not to have met the warranty of merchantability, and resultant injuries can be compensable under a breach of warranty theory.  

Similarly, the warranty of habitability assures that a rented property is fit for human occupation.  If a ceiling falls on your head, you have a claim for breach of the warranty of habitability even though the landlord lacked notice of the hazard thereby making a negligence claim very difficult.

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