By: Karen Piso Nadeau, Esquire and Leslie S. Harkavy, Esquire
What are the obligations of property owners in Massachusetts for removing snow, ice and dangerous conditions on their property? We have represented both the injured victims as well as the property owners, landlords and business owners in cases whereby someone has been injured due to a slip and fall on snow and ice. Often, the injuries are very serious due to the sudden, unexpected slipping on snow and ice and then awkwardly falling to the ground. We have seen broken wrists, broken legs, broken ankles, broken arms, head injuries and other life changing injuries due to a guest, a tenant or a customer slipping and falling on snow and ice on another’s property. In many of the cases, the property owners failed to remove snow and ice or failed to salt or sand leaving treacherous conditions to those walking on their property.
In Massachusetts, we have been pretty lucky this winter with warmer than usual temperatures and little snow. So far, there have not been nearly enough snow days off for a lot of school age children. But the winter is not over yet. In Boston, we have seen some significant snow and freezing cold temperatures in March. If you are a property owner, homeowner, landlord or business owner, shovel and remove snow and ice early and often on your property. Sand or salt your property as well.
The law in Massachusetts has shifted since 2010, placing a greater burden on property owners to keep their property safe for travel and to remove snow and ice. In 2010, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts overruled a 125 year-old Massachusetts rule allowing property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and ice and avoid liability. In Massachusetts, owners of property have a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice.
Cities and towns have their own individual snow removal laws regarding how long a property owner has to clear snow and shovel sidewalks. On December 29, 2016, The Boston Globe compiled a list of city and town snow shoveling rules across Massachusetts. This article provides an alphabetical list of the cities and towns with a summary of the rules for each. It is recommended that you visit the official website of your town or city. For example, Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Lynn, Lynnfield, Malden and Medford all require property owners to remove snow from the sidewalks.
In Massachusetts, all property owners can be held responsible for failing to remove snow and ice from their property. As to rental property, landlords have a primary obligation for snow removal. The State Sanitary Code provides that the owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and keep exterior stairways free of snow and ice. A landlord cannot avoid this by lease. A landlord may require a tenant to be responsible for snow removal in a lease only where the property has an independent means of egress under the tenant’s exclusive use or control not shared with other tenants or occupants. The landlord is still ultimately liable for someone hurt on the property due to dangerous snow or ice even if the landlord has a lease holding a tenant responsible for snow removal. See 105 CMR 410.000: MINIMUM STANDARDS OF FITNESS FOR HUMAN HABITATION (STATE SANITARY CODE, CHAPTER II).
Be sure to review the laws for your own town regarding how soon you must remove snow from sidewalks before you break the law. Some towns do not require a property owner to remove any snow from public sidewalks. Other cities and towns do require snow removal from public sidewalks such as Boston, Arlington and Somerville. Also, some towns and cities have different requirements for business or residential property. Additionally, some cities will fine you for throwing snow into the street.
For a compilation of law on the legal responsibility for snow and ice, see www.mass.gov. Search for Massachusetts law about snow and ice once in the mass.gov website.
Review your individual town or city bylaws regarding the timeframe requirements for shoveling and whether you are required to shovel sidewalks.
The case that changed the law in 2010 placing a greater obligation on property owners to shovel snow and remove ice involves a well-known shopping chain, Target. A man was injured when he fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot of the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, MA in front of a Target department store. He filed a lawsuit against Target Corporation, which controlled the area of the parking lot where he fell. The court states in this case: “It is not reasonable for a property owner to leave snow or ice on a walkway where it is reasonable to expect that a hardy New England visitor would choose to risk crossing the snow or ice rather than turn back or attempt an equally or more perilous walk around it.” In summary, the case says that if a property owner knows or reasonably should know of a dangerous condition on its property arising from snow or ice, the property owner owes a duty to lawful visitors to make reasonable efforts to protect lawful visitors against the danger.
The Target case also attempted to list the factors involved in determining the snow removal reasonably expected of a property owner saying it would depend on the amount of foot travel to be anticipated on the property, the magnitude of the risk reasonably feared, and the burden and expense of snow and ice removal. The court went on to say that what constitutes reasonable snow removal may vary depending upon if you are a single-family homeowner, apartment house owner, storeowner or nursing home operator. The Target case that triggered the increased responsibility of property owners for snow and ice removal is Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010).
If a person is injured due to a slip and fall on snow and ice, Massachusetts’s standard homeowner’s insurance policy and commercial liability insurance policy will usually have liability coverage for a slip and fall on your property. If you are a landlord, business owner or homeowner, check your coverage to make sure it is adequate to protect you. Typical coverage we see is $500,000 or 1 million. You can contact your insurance agent to confirm your coverage. Typically, the more coverage, the better.
It is important to remember that the law applies to all property owners, not just business owners and landlords. If someone slips and falls due to snow and ice on your property, you may be liable. This includes the pizza delivery driver for example. Shovel early and often, use ice melt or sand on walkways and stairs.
When a person is injured in an accident, a thorough investigation of the accident events is necessary to determine the cause and secure important information. As a victim of an accident, make sure everything is done to protect your interests. The lawyers at Nadeau Harkavy LLC, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, help victims and their families recover damages for their losses in serious injury and wrongful death cases arising from accidents. If you have any questions about your legal rights relating to a slip and fall accident, wrongful death or other accident, feel free to contact us for a free consult today at 617-674-7640.