A Brief Overview of the Standards for Snow and Ice Cases in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut
As the weather begins its cold turn and the ice starts to claim our windshields, you may find yourself wondering to what extent can a landlord or commercial tenant be liable in the event you slip and fall on snow or ice and injure yourself on their property. Below is a brief overview of the duties imposed on property owners/commercial tenants in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Whether you have a case against a city, town or a state is not addressed in this blog. Please be advised that cases against cities, towns or states often have strict, statutory prerequisites to the bringing of a claim and you should consult an attorney as soon as possible in the event you have been injured due to snow and ice in an area controlled by a city, town or state.
Connecticut Snow/Ice Removal (Reasonable Care plus Ongoing Storm Doctrine)
The Connecticut Supreme Court, in Kraus v. Newton, 211 Conn. 191, 197-98, 558 A.2d 240 (1989), stated that ‘[w]e believe that in the absence of unusual circumstances, a property owner, in fulfilling the duty owed to invitees upon his property to exercise reasonable diligence in removing dangerous accumulations of snow and ice, may await the end of a storm and a reasonable time thereafter before removing ice and snow from outside walks and steps. To require a landlord or other inviter to keep walks and steps clear of dangerous accumulations of ice, sleet or snow or to spread sand or ashes while a storm continues is inexpedient and impractical.’ Id. See also Leon v. DeJesus, 123 Conn. App. 574, 577 (Conn. App. Ct. 2010) (court upheld summary judgment in favor of defendant as evidence established freezing rain falling at time Plaintiff entered premises and two hours after and thus Defendant landowner did not have a duty to remove the ice that continued to fall during the interim). Moreover, ‘a landowner’s duty to remedy the effects of a storm does not arise until the end of a storm and a reasonable time thereafter.’ Sinert v. Olympia & York Development Co., 38 Conn.App. 844, 850, 664 A.2d 791, cert. denied, 235 Conn. 927, 667 A.2d 553 (1995). The Connecticut Supreme Court has held that property owners are entitled to wait a reasonable time after a storm to remove ice unless there are ‘unusual circumstances’. The only instances where ‘unusual circumstances’ have been found to exist is where there has already been a changeover in precipitation and there are no alternative means of egress from the subject premises. See Cooks v. O’Brian Properties Inc., 48 Conn. App. 339, 346-47 (1998) (Court approved trial judge’s jury charges because there was sufficient evidence to support the contention that plaintiff’s fall was due to old or preexisting snow and ice rather than the new ice formed by the ongoing storm).
Please note: Connecticut has a two-year statute of limitations (deadline) for filing suit as a result of injuries sustained due to snow and ice left on premises, meaning you must file suit within two years of the date of the incident, or you will be forever barred from recovery. This is one year shorter than the applicable deadline in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Rhode Island (Reasonable Care and Ongoing Storm Doctrine)
Rhode Island follows the ‘Connecticut Rule’ when determining the duty of care to keep premises safe from naturally occurring accumulations of ice and snow. See Fuller v. Housing Authority of Providence, 108 R.I. 770, 774, 279 A.2d 438, 441 (1971). This rule provides that a landlord or business invitor owes a duty to a tenant or business invitee ‘to use reasonable care to see that the common areas are kept reasonably safe from the dangers created by an accumulation of snow and ice which is attributed to purely natural causes.’ Id. at 772, 279 A.2d at 440 (adopting the Connecticut Rule in the landlord-tenant context); see also Terry v. Central Auto Radiators, Inc., 732 A.2d 713, 716 (R.I.1999) (extending rule to a business invitor-invitee relationship). The landlord or invitor, however, must be afforded ‘a reasonable time after the storm has ceased to remove the accumulation.’ Benaski, 899 A.2d at 503 (quoting Fuller, 108 R.I. at 774, 279 A.2d at 441). Therefore, as a general rule, any duty to clear a natural accumulation of ice and snow is not triggered before a reasonable time after the storm ends. Id. Under unusual circumstances, however, the duty to remove the accumulation may arise before the end of the storm. Terry, 732 A.2d at 717.
In Terry, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that under the unusual circumstances present in that case, the defendant business invitor owed a duty to the plaintiff invitee to make the premises reasonably safe from the hazards of an ongoing storm. Terry, 732 A.2d at 717. There, the plaintiff had brought her car to the defendant’s place of business for repair, and when she returned for it, the defendant’s employee directed her to walk a distance of 100 feet across an ‘unknown and difficult terrain’ to a rear lot behind the premises, where she fell on rutted ice. Id. at 715, 718. The employee had warned her to be careful of the accumulation of ice and snow. Id. at 715. This Court held that these circumstances were unusual because the defendant ‘exacerbated and increased the risk’ that the plaintiff would fall and suffer an injury, knew of the danger and put her in a position in which she had no real alternative but to traverse the treacherous ground. Id. at 717’18.
Snow and ice cases (premises liability) are subject to a three-year statute of limitations in Rhode Island ‘ meaning you must file suit within three years of the date of the incident, or you will be forever barred from recovery.
Massachusetts (Reasonable Care but No Ongoing Storm Doctrine)
The law in Massachusetts changed in 2010 with regard to the natural and unnatural accumulation of ice and snow in premises liability cases. In Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368 (2010), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the ‘SJC’) abolished the distinction between natural and unnatural accumulations of snow and ice in such cases. The former rule in Massachusetts was that the duty of care owed by landowners to lawful visitors did not include any obligation to remove snow and ice that had accumulated naturally on the property. See Sullivan v. Brookline, 416 Mass. 825, 827 (1994). After Papadopoulos, Massachusetts courts 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 the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk.
Papadopoulos, 457 Mass. at 383 (citations & internal quotation marks omitted). According to the SJC, this new rule will not impose heightened or special burdens on property owners. Rather, if an owner knows or reasonably should know of a dangerous condition on its property, whether arising from an accumulation of snow or ice, or rust on a railing, or a discarded banana peel, the property owner owes a duty to lawful visitors to make reasonable efforts to protect lawful visitors against the danger.
Id. (citations omitted). With regard to the removal of snow or ice, the court noted that its ruling would similarly not impose unreasonable maintenance burdens on landowners. ‘The duty of reasonable care does not make a property owner an insurer of its property; ‘nor does it impose unreasonable maintenance burdens.” Id. at 384 (citation omitted).
While Papadopoulos eliminated the ‘natural accumulation rule’ and adopted the so-called ‘Connecticut Rule’, the Court declined to adopt Connecticut’s ‘storm-in-progress’ doctrine. See Santolucito v. Demoulas Super Mkts., Inc., 30 Mass. L. Rep. 372 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2012). ‘The snow removal reasonably expected of a property owner will depend on the amount of foot traffic to be anticipated on the property, the magnitude of the risk reasonably feared, and the burden and expense of snow and ice removal.’Papadopoulos, 457 Mass. at 384. Different types of property owners, i.e., single-family homes vs. large, commercial outfits, will have different standards as to what constitutes reasonable snow removal.Id.
In the context of a commercial lease, a landlord has a duty of care to maintain the property in safe condition, with attendant liability if he does not, in only two circumstances: (1) if the landlord has undertaken the duty pursuant to the terms of the lease, or (2) if the location of the defect causing the injury was in a common or another area appurtenant to the leased premises ‘over which the [landlord] had some control.’ Sheehan v. El Johnan, Inc. 38 Mass.App.Ct. 975 (1995), quoting Chausse v. Coz, 405 Mass. 264, 266 (1989). See also, Humphrey v. Byron, 447 Mass. 322, 328’329 (2006).
Massachusetts, like Rhode Island, has a three-year statute of limitations period for filing suit as a result of injuries sustained due to snow and ice. In all three states, the liability of a landlord or commercial tenant would be analyzed differently in the event an unnatural accumulation of snow and ice caused your injury. For example, if a downspout was clogged and caused water to pool and freeze in excess at one location, then a determination of whether the landlord was negligent would be analyzed differently then if a person slipped and fell on a fresh accumulation of snow and ice. Because the landlord would be responsible for knowing the condition of his/her/its downspout, and of knowing that the downspout causes a large pool of water, the duty he would owe to patrons or business invitees would be enhanced versus the simple treating and removing of precipitation.
If you have been injured as a result of a slip and fall on ice or snow it is imperative that you contact a qualified personal injury attorney as soon as possible following the incident. For example, according to Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 84, Section 21, a person must notify the owner of private property of injury or damage from snow or ice on their premises within 30 days of the incident. Please contact the attorneys at Keches Law Group, P.C. for a free consultation regarding your rights and the available remedies if you have been injured due to snow and ice.