With the recent snowfall, property owners have been out shoveling out their driveways and sidewalks very frequently over the past few weeks. Undoubtedly, many property owners are probably wondering what is their legal duty of care with respect to their sidewalks and other common areas. In July of 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., which involved a slip-and-fall incident on a patch of ice outside the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers. Unfortunately for property owners, however, the Papadopoulos decision has increased their exposure to legal liability for slip-and-fall accidents.
The SJC’s decision in Papadopoulos significantly changed the old common law rule, which provided that property owners could not be held liable for accidents on naturally occurring snow and ice accumulations. Therefore, under the old rule, which was also know as the “Massachusetts rule”, homeowners were only responsible if the snow and ice causing the accident resulted from an “unnatural occurrence“. Consequently, the Massachusetts rule created an exception to the general rule that a property owner owes a duty to all lawful visitors to use reasonable care to maintain his or her property in a reasonably safe condition. However, courts applying the Massachusetts rule had to determine the difference between natural and unnatural accumulations on a case-by-case basis, and the distinction was often very unclear.
In Papadopoulos, the SJC held that there is no distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice for purposes of a premises liability in slip-and-fall claims. Consequently, homeowners will now be held liable when they fail to show reasonable care in removing snow and ice from in and around their property. In a nutshell, all areas where your tenants frequent need to be maintained and kept free from snow and ice.
For an official list of Landlord rights and responsibilities read more here. Also, you might want to check your insurance policy and ask your representative if you will be covered in the event someone does slip and fall. Accidents happen, so do lawsuits.