For more than 125 years, the prevailing law in Massachusetts was that property owners could leave “natural” accumulations of snow and ice on their property without fear of liability. Over my career, I have defended both property owner defendants and plaintiffs on these claims and have witnessed a significant change in the applicable law.
In 2010, after Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010), the law shifted significantly, placing a greater burden on property owners to keep their property safe for travel and requiring property owners to remove snow and ice.
I began taking plaintiff-side snow and ice cases almost immediately after Papadopoulos. At first, I remember a few older lawyers telling me I was crazy to pursue a snow and ice case, as they weren’t viable in Massachusetts. I didn’t listen, and I began taking them and winning. I had to win a lot of them before these “old timer” lawyers came around and realized these were viable claims. By the same token, it also took a few years for the “old timer” landlords to realize the same thing, and that they were liable if they failed to clear snow and ice from their property.
I remember one case in particular where an old time landlord came to this realization. My elderly client was renting an apartment from a long-time landlord. For years, she took care of the snow and ice removal from her porch and stairs. After she suffered a stroke, she could no longer perform the snow removal and asked the landlord to hire someone. Even though the law had recently changed, the landlord blew off her requests. One evening after the first big storm of the season, she left the landlord a message explaining that he hadn’t treated any of the snow or ice in two days, and she was unable to do so herself. She was concerned that temperatures were dropping, more snow was on the way, and she would not be able to safely leave her apartment for a medical appointment in the morning.
The landlord ultimately ignored her, and the woman was forced to try to navigate the icy stairs the next day to get to the doctor. She fell and suffered multiple fractures and was hospitalized. When the landlord learned of her fall, he visited her and offered her one free month’s rent.
When she explained that wasn’t enough because her medical bills were astronomical, and her injuries would keep her out of work for the foreseeable future, he threatened to evict her. She did not know what to do, so her children put her in touch with me. Once I took over the claim, I immediately notified the landlord in writing and gave him an opportunity to either notify his insurance company or resolve the claims himself before I filed suit.
I will never forget his response upon receiving my letter. He didn’t notify his insurance company. Instead, he left me a rambling 5 minute voicemail on my cell phone identifying himself and explaining that I couldn’t sue him in Massachusetts because he could leave the snow there as long as he wanted because it was a “NATURAL ACCUMULATION OF SNOW AND ICE”. He went to tell my voicemail he knew the law better than any lawyer in this area because he had been a landlord all over the city for more than 50 years, his family had owned that particular house for 100 years, and they had never once removed snow, etc.
Unfortunately for the landlord, while that approach may have worked for him for 50 years, after Papadopoulos, it was no longer the law.
Not surprisingly, after a few months of litigation including his deposition, the matters settled amicably and my client was compensated for her medical bills and pain and suffering.