Massachusetts Property Owners Now Have Legal Responsibility To Shovel and Treat Snow and Ice

by Rich Vetstein on July 28, 2010 · 49 comments

in Landlord Tenant Law, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Premises Liability, Safety

Ice-slip-drink

High Court Overrules 100 Years of Massachusetts Snow Removal Law

In a much anticipated ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overruled 125 years of legal precedent and announced a new rule of law that all Massachusetts property owners are legally responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property. The case is Papadopoulos v. Target Corp. and can be read here.

Rejecting the old common law rule that property owners could simply leave naturally accumulated snow and ice untreated and escape liability, the SJC held that all Massachusetts property owners must remove or treat snow and ice like any other dangerous condition on property. Justice Ralph Gants reasoned that “is not reasonable for a property owner to leave snow or ice on a walkway where it is reasonable to expect that a hardy New England visitor would choose to risk crossing the snow or ice, rather than turn back or attempt an equally or more perilous walk around it.’’ Now for some frequently asked questions about the new law.

I am a landlord. How long do I have to shovel snow and ice on my rental property?

There is no clear cut answer to this question, and juries and courts will ultimately decide what is reasonable. The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 12 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

My lease states that the tenant is responsible for snow shoveling. Will that protect me from liability?

Probably not. A person who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors. The landlord may bring a claim for contribution/indemnification against the tenant.

I live in Boston, and I heard I have to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house after a storm. Is that true?

Yes. On top of their added responsibilities, property owners in several Massachusetts communities, including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester, are required by local ordinances to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. The City of Boston mandates clean sidewalks within 6 hours of a storm; Worcester is 12 hours. For towns and cities without municipal-owned sidewalks, sidewalks remain the property of the abutting owner, and must be cleared by those owners.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?

You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable. Get back out there and spread Ice-melt!

If you have additional questions, please ask them in the comment forms below!

ResourcesCity of Cambridge Snow Removal PolicyCity of Boston Know Snow Fact Page

Read More: Shoveling Ruling May Face First Test–Boston Globe (12.25.10).

_______________________________________________________________

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

  • Brad blodget

    What about snow and ice on a town or state-owned sidewalk in front of one’s home. I my particular case, the town always send out a sidewalk plow, but they never sand the walk. I don’t believe it is my rersponsibility to sand it? Am I correct?

    BGB

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  • Keith

    What about if its in the tenants lease that they are responsible ?

    • http://www.vetsteinlawgroup.com Rich Vetstein

      Landlord would still be liable to third parties. But there would be fight on indemnification between tenant and landlord.

      • Neil

        I am currently considering signing a lease where the owner has added a line stating that snow removal in front of the building is my responsibility.  Do you mind explaining more about what this means?

        • guru

          the landlord can ask you to sign anything, but just because he/she is lazy, doesnt make it legal!

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  • Frosty the Snowman

    @Brad blodget — It’s your responsibility to clean the sidewalk in front of your house. I’m not sure what the definition of cleanliness is. I suppose the court will let you know that if you get sued. ; )

    What if you’re on vacation for an extended period of time and the snow accumulates? Is it still “reasonable” to return in two weeks and then clean it up?

    • http://www.vetsteinlawgroup.com Rich Vetstein

      Hey Frosty, good question. I would advise property owners who deal with heavily trafficked areas to hire a snow removal company to ensure that walkways, etc. are cleared soon after fresh snowfall.

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  • Bear

    Regarding liability for a public sidewalk in front of your house, Attorney David White noted that “this ruling does not apply to roads and sidewalks” that are publicly owned. In a footnote by the SJC, for circumstances “not relevant here, for injuries suffered by a plaintiff on a public way, including a sidewalk and roadway,” they cite a 1938 case that ruled that “the owner or occupant of premises abutting on a public way is under no obligation to keep the sidewalk free of snow or ice which came there from natural causes.” This does not mean you can ignore a municipal ordinance that requires you to shovel the public walkways; only that you don’t have the same liability as for your own private properties.

  • Patrick Murphy

    It is still unclear [to me] as to whether a tenent or landlord is responsible for clearing snow/ice from the sidewalk in front of the rented property???

    • http://www.vetsteinlawgroup.com Rich Vetstein

      The landlords will always be ultimately responsible for ensuring safe passage in front of rental property. Even if there’s a lease provision shifting responsibility, a personal injury lawyer will always sue the property owner–the landlord who retains ultimate liability under the Target case. Thus, if there’s a lease provision providing that the tenant is responsible for snow removal, landlords must ensure that the tenant is actually doing that work–if they are not, they need to do it themselves.

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  • 1helluvatym

    As a tenant, who do I call when nothing is done on the property?

    • http://www.vetsteinlawgroup.com Rich Vetstein

      Your landlord. Failing that, city/town inspector. Failing that, go to court.

    • Bla

      Buy your own house then

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  • Scott J Lamagna

    I take pride in cleaning my driveway and sidewalks in front of my house and I’m not 100% sure who owns them or is responsible, my concern is no matter how vigilant I am when clearing snow and ice that conditions change so fast in New England. I hate to get into “what if’s” but sometimes melting snow freezes before I get home from work or maybe I missed a small patch or wind has strewn more snow on the walk ways or some drunk just happens to fall how am I liable for such instances?

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  • 1helluvatym

    As the tenant of 13 years (no lease, no Tenant At Will) and shoveling many a snow storm on my own, nothing was done by the landlord after the last storm. I mentioned it in a nice note that went with the latest rent check that there is now a Mass. Snow Removal Law. The response I received was to please sign the enclosed Tenant At Will, which included me being responsible for the snow removal. Why should I sign something asking me to relinquish my rights under the law, and protect hers? I suspect by not signing the TAW that the family will give me 30 days to move.

  • Larry

    What rules or laws are there against commercial snow removers from plowing snow from a commercial business onto the abutting private property. It is a restaurant with a large paved parking lot that angles downhill to my property. The actual property line is about 6-8 feet the the parking lot edge but the snow piles can get quite large and the snow melt can keep my yard wet for quite some time. Along with the snow is salt and sand. This is the second winter for a new owner and I have spoke to them a few times already. The previous owner was more understanding and had the plow-er push the snow in a different direction.
    In the summer I keep the grass or what’s left of it cut and trimmed. I pick up the leaves in the fall and go about 2-3 feet onto paved surface to pick up leaves. With the snow piles also come the leaves that have accumulated up to thirty feet into the lot. Do I have legal rights in this matter?

  • Dan

    My landlord told myself, and the other tenants that they plow our driveway, both storms they never showed up, we hired someone else to plow, are they responsible?

    • Dash

      Yes. They are.

  • Greg

    I rent a house on a private way that the town has refused to plow. Who is responsible for clearing the road? Would it be the person who owns that land? Thanks

    • Sean Mastro

      if its a private road? then the land lord should provide a plow service. If its a driveway, a walkway, and a lot of different people in the building use it, then again, its a landlord service that should be provided. If its a house you rent, then maybe you need to start training for home ownership and get out there and shovel!!!!

  • kim

    So, the city has a cap of $5,000 but what is the property owners cap? I bet more than $5,000!
    Also, it’s my responsibility to shovel what is technically the city’s property but I can not drink an open container on that same sidewalk, can I?
    Did I miss something?

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  • Vin

    How does a city require a landlord to maintain city property (the sidewalk) or impose a fine if not done? This ordinance seems to be fishy, at best. I’ve heard everything as “it’s the right thing to do” (agreed) to “the sidewalks are easements and you’re responsible” (debatable).

    My thought is that, if the homeowner is responsible for maintenance, then if there were a large crack in the cement, would the landlord also be responsible to hire a contractor to re-cement the walkway?

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  • tony

    how much is the fine or penalty you stand to receive if you did not clean your property clear of snow?

  • Chris

    So, if the town says I own, and am responsible for clearing the sidewalk in front of my house, do I have an actionable claim for trespass against a neighbor who plows an eight foot high pile of snow from his property onto the sidewalk in front of my home?

    • Carol Taylor

      Hi Chris, I have the same problem with my neighbor. Did you ever get an answer/response to this question? If so, please share via email —- caroltaylorrecruits(at)gmail(dot)com. Thanks very much

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  • Wbpfor

     How does effect your neighbor putting their snow in your driveway?

  • Lorne50

    what is the time frame for removing the snow from walkways and sidewalks… i’m on call with a snow removal crew, and usually cant get to my own property until i get out of work, well after the snow has fallen ? is there a window ?

    • http://www.massrealestatelawblog.com Richard Vetstein

      There’s no specific time frame, but I would recommend that you keep property free and clear of snow so it’s not a hazardous condition.

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  • Dash

    No property owner should be held responsible for any path that is held as a public way. Either for snow removal, or the liabilities that surround it. I’m getting tired of this BS where the government (local in this case) gets to have their cake and eat it, too. If they want the public to be allowed onto any property, then they can accept responsibility for the public, and clear their own path.

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  • USSA

    How is this not classified as slavery (uncompensated forced labor)?

    • janet_thinks_so_can_you

      You are correct it is another facet of slavery. Compounded by being held responsible aka burnt more by preposterous decisions made by MA SJC to intice obliviousness and reckless behaviours and further demise of virtues to easily blame others for ones injuries.

  • riposte76

    Can this ruling apply to loss of use?

    • riposte76

      example. A large apartment community no longer shovels the sidewalk, for a full winter.

  • janet_thinks_so_can_you

    All do respect to anyone that may slip and fall any time, in any season of the year.

    However, the MA SJC is run-amuck in their so called ‘legal realm’ in
    too many and this decision too to lead society further down path to be
    oblivious, blame others, and self destructive. Such ‘legal decisions’ do
    absolutely nothing to prevent injuries. In fact they invite more by
    creating ‘legal’ opportunities to lucre by nurturing and fostering obliviousness, thereby seeking financial recourses for so called ‘legal’ means.

    It cultivates massive distrust in society instead of empathy and
    caring. It causes, rents to increase, taxes to increase, everything one may buy to be more expesive, insurance
    policies to be more cumbersome and ever more costly.
    Litigiousness ever expanding to, deprive morals, virtues, respect, dignity, … all lead to ruin society.

    Facts are, on Earth- in USA- in New England- in Massachusetts, every
    season and day of the year has infinite variable weather and
    consequences. On the topic winter snow, ice, sleet, rain, fog, etc these
    weather events have been happening for Four Billion+ years since Earth
    was formed.
    It is from time immemorial long before humans existed
    on Earth. Accordingly, humans, as have and as do all living creatures,
    had to adapt to winter and all climate weather conditions present.

    Without writing a book on humanity and history some key points are:

    If winter ice, snow, sleet, rain, etc was blanketing harmful there
    would be no humans or other living creatures present wherever such
    weather occurs. In fact most of human population is present where snow,
    ice, sleet, etc occurs. In contrast there are very few people and other
    living creatures present where snow, ice, etc is low, lacking or absent.
    Some examples of such places are deserts, i.e., Sahara, Gobi, Arabia,
    Great-Basin, Sonora, and more.

    In North America native people
    have lived here for more than 16,000 years most of their population
    thrived in areas where snow, ice, occurs. Ever since immigrants arrived
    after 1492 they also settled in areas where snow, ice, sleet, occurred
    and thrived. Amongst, they were explorers, traders, voyageurs, that led
    the way on foot, snow-shoes, over snow, ice, etc, for settlers that
    followed.
    So in our more recent 400 years of Massachusetts history
    snow, ice, etc has always happened yet the since few hundred immigrant
    Pilgrim settlers population has become 6,300,000 in Massachusetts. If
    snow, ice, sleet, was harmful the human presence in Massachusetts would
    not have become so huge by now.

    This is a brief thought
    provoking message toward promptly eliminating preposterous MA SJC ‘legal
    decisions’ including the one addressed in this forum.

    Further, MA SJC by their ‘legal decision’ promotes serious harm to our
    environment and health by requiring the ever increasing use and
    dispensing of deicing-chemicals. Of late deicing chemicals usage exceeds
    120,000 tons/ winter in Boston alone, in MA & the 351 MA towns it
    is over 4,000,000 tons/yr.
    Such deicing chemicals ‘salts’ such as
    NaCl, CaCl, MgCl, Kcl, their blends along with others pollute ground,
    air, ground water, rivers, lakes, reservoirs. Plus salts cause massive
    ruin to cars, roads, bridges, all infrastructures and utilities. Salts
    are vigorously promoted by mass-media too as means to achieve road car
    driver ‘safety’ whereas instead they promote reckless, boldness;
    egocentric behaviors.
    If use of ‘salts’ on roads etc assured safety
    there would not be any crashes or accidents during summer or ideal
    weather conditions.
    The environmental, social, fiscal hazards and harm are astronomical.

    Again, this is a brief thought provoking message toward promptly
    eliminating preposterous MA SJC ‘legal decisions’ including the one
    addressed in this forum.

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