It’s Snowing (Again!) – What Responsibility Does a Landlord Have for Snow and Ice Removal?

After four major snowstorms have buried much of Massachusetts in more than six feet of snow, and with other areas of the country dealing with storms of their own, landlords nationwide are wondering how responsible they are for clearing and managing snow and ice that has accumulated in their parking lots and on their sidewalks. The answer is: very responsible.

On July 26, 2010 in Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) substantially revised 125 years of Massachusetts common law relating to land owner liability for snow removal. Prior to the Papadopoulos decision, Massachusetts law held that a property owner was not liable for injuries caused by “natural” accumulations of snow or ice on the owner’s property. In Papadopoulos, the SJC discarded the distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice and ruled that in snow and ice cases property owners are now held to the same duty of care to lawful visitors as they are in all slip and fall cases-- to act as a “reasonable person under all the circumstances.”

The snow removal reasonably expected of a property owner will depend on several factors, most importantly: (1) the amount of foot traffic on the property, (2) the amount of the risk reasonably feared, and (3) the burden and expense of snow and ice removal. While all owners of property owe visitors a duty of reasonable care, what constitutes reasonable snow removal will vary, with retail stores, restaurants, and hotels owing a higher standard of care than residential owners.

The decision in 2010 does not create a new standard of care, rather it provides for a more uniform application of the “reasonable person” standard.  The SJC stated, “If a property owner knows or reasonably should know of a dangerous condition on its property, whether arising from an accumulation of snow or ice, or rust on a railing, or a discarded banana peel, the property owner owes a duty to lawful visitors to make reasonable efforts to protect against the danger.”  Plaintiffs in snow and ice cases will still need to prove that the land owner was negligent in its snow or ice removal, and owners will still have defenses such as comparative negligence.

Massachusetts is now in line with other New England states that have also rejected the natural accumulation rule. However some states, such as Missouri, Texas, Illinois and Ohio, still follow the natural accumulation rule in snow and ice cases. Additionally, individual town and city regulations will govern how long a property owner has to remove the snow and ice before violating local rules.

It is important to note that once the snow is cleared, property owners still have a duty to guard against ice that may have melted during the snow removal process and then refrozen during the night.  So keep shovels and ice melt products handy until all the snow and ice are truly gone!

Related topics: Compliance, Landlords, Restaurants, Retail, Risk Management