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Globe Editorial

SJC’s snow ruling unlikely to cause unwarranted suits

A Boston bus takes on passengers in the street due to a sidewalk blocked with snow. A Boston bus takes on passengers in the street due to a sidewalk blocked with snow. (Associated Press)
January 9, 2011

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THE CALENDAR has flipped to the middle of winter, and the Supreme Judicial Court’s July ruling on snow removal has taken on a heightened importance in this season of treacherous, slippery footing. The ruling seems unlikely to place an undue burden on businesses and homeowners, but the Legislature may need to step in to clarify a few points, depending on how things go this season.

The key component of the ruling was the court’s decision to strike down the distinction between “natural’’ and “artificial’’ accumulations of snow and ice. Previously, under a century-old common-law rule unique to Massachusetts, property owners were not liable for snow that remained unplowed, or icy parking lots that weren’t sanded. The explanation was that those were “natural’’ conditions, while a property owner who, say, plowed snow into a giant pile and blocked the view of incoming traffic, could be held liable for injuries.

But this proved, over time, to be a confusing standard — courts often had to determine in which category to put, say, ice uncovered by snow shoveling. And it made little sense to create a blanket excuse for failing to take even rudimentary precautions against slips and falls. So the court was right to rule that the distinction has “sown confusion and conflict in our case law.’’

In effect, the court has reconciled snow and ice standards with those applied to all other potential property hazards. Property owners must, as an earlier ruling put it, “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.’’ Nobody can be held liable for someone else’s injuries without being found to have acted negligently. This is not, in itself, an undue burden to place on home and business owners — the SJC pointed out in its ruling that several Massachusetts laws already impose stricter standards.

This could, however, increase the potential for nuisance lawsuits. Some suits involving clearly naturally occurring snow accumulation would have been immediately thrown out under the old standards — for example, if someone sued after slipping on snow that had fallen in the first two hours of a storm, before anyone could remove it. Now these cases could at the very least lead to legal expenses for homeowners, even if they are eventually settled or thrown out.

It’s not yet clear if this will be a widespread problem, however, and Massachusetts’ standard is now more in line with those of other New England states. For now, the new standard is an improvement because it treats hazards as hazards, whether they are brought about by people or nature. If this leads to an explosion of nuisance lawsuits, the Legislature should reserve the option of stepping in to provide more protection for property owners on those borderline cases that could prove irresistible to overly litigious plaintiffs. But for now, the SJC’s ruling appears to be a reasonable approach to a perennial problem.