SJC Nixes Natural v. Unnatural Distinction In Snow And Ice Cases

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SJC Nixes Natural v. Unnatural Distinction In Snow And Ice Cases: Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368 (2010)

Recently, in Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court abolished the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice, holding that a landowner’s duty of care to a lawful visitor encompasses an obligation to maintain his property reasonably free of accumulations of snow and ice regardless of the source. The underlying facts of the case comprise a familiar New England scenario. On December 20, 2002, the plaintiff slipped and fell on a patch of ice in Target’s parking lot at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, which had accumulated “naturally” (according to longstanding precedent) when snow melted from a nearby snow bank left by a snowplow and refroze. The Superior Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that, as a matter of law, Target’s duty of care to Papadopoulos did not encompass a duty to remove or warn of the “naturally” accumulated patch of ice. The Appeals Court affirmed in an unpublished memorandum and order issued under Rule 1:28.

After allowing plaintiff’s application for further appellate review, the SJC reversed. Tracing the history of the natural accumulation defense back to long-abandoned distinctions between a landowner’s duty to an invitee, a tenant and a licensee, the SJC held that the artificial distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations created only confusion in the law and, as such, had earned a similar fate.

Papadopoulos is obviously a landmark decision, affecting both private and public landowners across the Commonwealth. But the SJC’s rejection of one of the underlying justifications for the natural accumulation defense is arguably as significant as the decision itself. Specifically, after identifying the “open and obvious doctrine” as one of the key justifications of the natural accumulation defense, the SJC expressly endorsed the reasoning of the Appeals Court in Soederberg v. Concord Greene Condominium Ass’n, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 333 (2010), a case reported in our Summer 2010 newsletter. Just five months earlier, the Soederberg court held that the open and obvious doctrine does not discharge a landowner’s duty to remedy an open and obvious defect where harm to others is reasonably foreseeable. Thus, a landowner who has reason to believe that a lawful visitor, behaving as a reasonable person, will confront (rather than avoid) a known or obvious danger because the advantages of confronting it outweigh the apparent risks, owes a duty to that visitor to remedy the danger. By requiring a landowner to remedy an open and obvious defect under such circumstances, the SJC has clearly undercut the longstanding notion that landowners owe no duty to those harmed by such defects.

Given the breadth of the language employed by the SJC, the Papadopoulos decision will likely have an impact far beyond snow and ice cases. Landowners, including municipalities, should recognize that, not only must they take reasonable steps to remove, treat or otherwise remedy natural accumulations of snow and ice, they must also correct open and obvious hazards whenever it is foreseeable that a lawful visitor will assume the risks posed by such risks and suffer harm as a result.

Published in Developments in Municipal Law Fall 2010 Newsletter.