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Mass. Residents Must Clear Snow or Face Suits

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

In areas of the country where the winters are harsh, with each yearly snowfall comes a flurry of slip and fall lawsuits. This observation carries with it particularly interesting ramifications for Massachusetts residents this year. In a decision made when the weather was a bit warmer this past summer, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that homeowners will be liable for the buildup of snow and ice on sidewalks adjoining their property. This is a major change from previous law.

The effects of the change in law are amplified in the city of Newton, Mass., where a local city ordinance will now additionally fine a property owner who does not make an attempt to clear snow from sidewalks abutting his property, reports As goes the state, so goes Newton. The city law will set out a system of warnings and fines, to be determined by city leaders in the coming weeks.

Massachusetts law, unlike that of New York, for example, had for more than 100 years allowed homeowners to escape liability for slip and fall accidents due to "natural buildup" of snow and ice, reports the Associated Press. However, in their decision this past summer, the court reversed the previous law that held a natural buildup of snow or ice was not a "defect" of the property under the law that the owner would have a duty to repair.

The court has changed the focus of the law to emphasize a property owner's responsibility to act with reasonable care regarding the safety of others, the AP reports. A patch of ice which can cause a fall or a mound of snow forcing a pedestrian out into the street would likely be seen by many courts, not just those in Massachusetts, to be a cause of an unreasonable risk of injury.

However, Martin Rooney, an attorney with Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association who supported the defendants in the case before the Massachusetts court, is convinced the ruling will only lead to further litigation. "How aggressive do you have to be to remove the snow? Is it reasonable to wait an hour, a day or the next morning? These are all the arguments we are going to have to make with juries," Rooney told the AP.

The city of Newton might have an answer for Mr. Rooney. Under their new law, (charmingly called Proposition 2½) the property owner must make a reasonable effort to clear the snow and keep the sidewalks safe for pedestrians. As the authors of the article noted, safe sidewalks are a must as pedestrians forced into the street make the city unsafe for themselves, and for drivers.

Happy shoveling, Massachusetts!

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