Some area snow plowers believe a recent court decision might work in their favor this winter.
The Supreme Judicial Court decided Monday that property owners are responsible for clearing snow from their land, whether it fell naturally or was moved by a plow, to avoid snow-related injuries.
The ruling could mean an increase in business.
“It would have to (increase business). People are going to be more conscious of plowing,” said Joan Colligan, office manager for Colligan Landscaping in Franklin.
The ruling relates to the case of a Peabody man who broke his pelvis in 2002 when he fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot of a Target department store in Danvers.
Though the parking lot was clear, the man slipped on snow plowed into a median strip. A judge initially dismissed the case, determining the man had slipped on a “natural accumulation” of snow or ice – for which Massachusetts property owners have not been liable until now.
In writing for the court, Justice Ralph Gants said landowners are now responsible for making their property safe from all types of snow and ice.
“We now will apply to hazards arising from snow and ice the same obligation that a property owner owes to lawful visitors as to all other hazards: a duty to ‘act as a reasonable person under all of the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk,”‘ Gants wrote.
David Rubin, a personal injury lawyer from Framingham, likes the ruling.
“I think this decision is a good decision in that it recognizes when snow or ice transitions from a natural to an unnatural accumulation – the property owner has a legal responsibility for making sure the premises are safe for pedestrians, and if they’re not, they’ll be culpable,” Rubin said.
Practicing law for nearly 30 years, Rubin says he gets about 40 snow-related injury inquiries a year.
“The problem has always been, historically in these cases, how to distinguish natural or unnatural snow and ice. You have to recognize when you live in New England or any other part of the country where there’s a lot of snow, there’s a certain amount of risk that comes with the weather because everybody knows snow and ice can create a problem,” he said.
“For those acts of God, so to speak, the courts have held no liability on the landowner. Once the landowner does something to remove snow or ice from their property properly, (there’s a) liability.”
The new rule will apply to pending lawsuits.
For Colligan, whose son owns the company and plows local neighborhoods and some properties in Wrentham, it means owners will likely have to spend more on snow removal.
“As far as rental properties like apartments, it might be something landlords will be more cautious about doing a good job than a sloppy job,” she said. “It’ll probably save on the injuries, but on the other end it may cost (owners) more money to keep things clean.”
Outside of Milford’s Stop & Shop yesterday, area residents agreed with the court in that property owners should be held accountable.
“My husband owns property and I think he should be held responsible,” said Jennifer Williams of Blackstone. Her husband owns a multifamily home and two second-hand stores, she said.
“It’s part of the responsibility of being a home or property owner,” said David Collard of Milford.
For Shawn Fitzgibbons of Fitzgibbons Landscaping Co. in Ashland, the ruling is a positive one.
“It’s good for me, bad for them,” he said.
Fitzgibbons has owned his company for 20 years, and has about 70 customers from Ashland, Framingham, Southborough and other towns. He expects business to pick up now.
“I imagine (it will increase), depending on whether people listen or not,” he said.
David Rykbost doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think it’ll make a difference one way or the other – people need their plots plowed either way,” said Rykbost, owner of Dave’s Landscaping Co. in Hudson. “It’s more of a contract or insurance issue either way.”
Rubin said while many factors have to be considered with snow-related injuries, he thinks the ruling is a good start.
“The (Supreme Judicial Court) recognizes the property owner has some legal responsibility. Whether that will create an uptick in claims or not, I don’t know. But I think it’s a good ruling.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Ashley Studley can be reached at 508-634-7556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.