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The Elimination of the “Natural” Accumulation Defense in Massachusetts Slip and Falls

Massachusetts has finally joined the other New England states and eliminated the long-held standard of “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations in determining landowner negligence in slip and falls caused by ice and snow.  In determining landowner negligence, liability would be assessed only by determining whether accumulation of snow and ice was a “natural” or “unnatural.” If the accumulation was a “natural” accumulation, the landowner was not liable for the resulting injury. If the accumulation was an unnatural accumulation, the landowner was responsible for the resulting injury. In Papadopoulos v. Target, 457 Mass. 368 (July 26, 2010), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court abolished the long-held, “archaic” rule. The court ruled that the all landowners have a duty to “act as a reasonable person under all of the circumstances” and completely eliminated the distinction of “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice.

Under the old rule, the landowner had no obligation to remove or warn of “natural” accumulations of snow and Ice.  Now, however, the Supreme Judicial Court concludes that the standard of care in snow and ice cases should be no different than the standard of care owed by a landowner in any other premises liability action. This means that a landowner owes a duty to maintain its premises in a reasonably safe condition given the circumstances.

This decision does not create a new standard of care; rather, it seeks to apply the reasonable person standard to the existing rule. It does not change the need for the plaintiff to prove negligence, nor does it reduce the defense of comparative negligence. The main purpose is to make landowners responsible for making their property reasonably safe for lawful visitors, regardless of the source of danger, and whether the condition was an act of nature or an act of another person.

This makes the rule more uniform. It seeks to apply the same standard whether the condition occurred in rain, snow, summer, fall, whatever. The court states that “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 failing, or a discarded banana peel, the property owner owes a duty to lawful visitors to make reasonable efforts to protect lawful visitors against the danger.”

The court will now balance the expense of removing the snow and ice with the likelihood and seriousness of foreseeable harm to visitors, and consider the following:

  1. The amount of foot traffic to be anticipated on the property;
  2. The magnitude of the risk reasonably reared; and
  3. The burden and expense of snow and ice removal.

Although the standard that is applied to snow and ice slips and falls has changed, the rule that is applied to these matters is no different from what would be applied if an accident happened on a landowner’s property any other time.

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