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Premises Liability Lawsuits in Massachusetts

When we talk about personal injury cases, we are typically talking about someone being injured through the negligence of others.  Negligence is one type of tort (a civil wrong for which the law provides a remedy), which is the most common claim in a Boston personal injury case.

Slip and Fall Boston If you are injured on someone else’s property, and the cause of your injury was largely the result the negligence of the property owner or manager, then you will likely have grounds to file a premises liability lawsuit.

Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation

The law surrounding premises liability cases in Massachusetts works quite a bit differently than it does in other states, which hold truer to the common law as handed down from the old English legal system.  At common law, there was much distinction put on the reason the plaintiff was on the property when the injury occurred.  This can include whether the plaintiff was a social or business invitee or a licensee.  As our Boston premises liability lawyers have discussed in other posts on this personal injury blog, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), our state supreme court, did away with these distinctions in the 1970s.

Since that time, there have been a few other major decisions that have had a major effect on how premises liability law works in the Commonwealth.  One of these cases was Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010).  In this case, a plaintiff was injured on snow and ice.

Snow and ice are two of the more common reasons for slip-and-fall injuries in our area. When someone slips on ice or snow that is on or in front of someone else’s property, that may the basis for filing a personal injury lawsuit, and that lawsuit would be filed under a theory of premises liability.

Prior to this case, there was a distinction between accidents that occurred due to naturally occurring snow and ice, or ice that was placed there or accumulated due to the efforts of property owners.  For example, if someone shoveled the ice and snow into a pile and left that pile on a part of the property, it would be considered an unnatural accumulation.

In this case, plaintiff slipped and fell on a patch of ice in a shopping center parking lot in Danvers, Massachusetts.  He was injured when he fell on the ice and eventually filed a personal injury lawsuit against the owner of store adjacent to where he fell.  That store was responsible for the ice and snow cleanup and had hired a contractor to handle the work.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgement, and the judge granted that motion to as to all claims.  A motion for summary judgment is filed pursuant to Rule 56 of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure and allows for a case to be dismissed when there are no genuine issues as to a material fact.  In other words, this means that when all the facts are examined in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (usually the plaintiff), there is nothing in dispute and the case can be dismissed.

In this case, there was no dispute that the snowplow had deposited a pile of snow and ice on a median next to a handicapped parking space.  When the plaintiff was leaving the store with his purchase, he stepped on an icy patch.  This patch was determined to be the result of snow from the pile left by the plow that had melted, run along the ground, and then refroze.  This was then considered a natural accumulation.   The case was dismissed, because case law at the time made a distinction about whether the snow was a natural or unnatural accumulation and if it was unnatural, it could be defendant’s fault.  If it was natural, there was no liability.

On appeal, the court abolished the distinction between natural and unnatural snow and ice accumulations. Under current law, landowners must make sure to take reasonable precautions to maintain the property so slip and fall accidents are not likely to occur.  Failing to do this is considered negligence, and that could be the basis for filing a premises liability lawsuit in Boston.

Sarkisian v. Concept Restaurants, Inc.

In Sarkisian v. Concept Restaurants, Inc., 471 Mass. (2015), the SJC once again made major changes to premises liability law in Massachusetts. In this case, the court decided that the mode of operation doctrine in premises liability actions did not only apply to actions that involved and injury outside of self-serve establishment.

The mode of operation approach holds that a defendant in a premises liability action will be liable if the mode of operation chosen by the owner is the reason for the injury that occurred to cause the plaintiff to suffer a personal injury. Originally, this theory of liability was essentially reserved to slip and fall cases that occurred outside of defendant’s property; however, in this case, Supreme Judicial Court increased the scope to include other types of premises liability cases, as well.

In this case, the plaintiff broke her leg when she slipped on a dance floor.  The dance floor was wet and was located in a nightclub owned by defendant. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment in this case, as well, and that motion was granted. The reason this motion for summary judgment was granted is because the court concluded that defendant did not have actual or constructive notice of the wet floor, and the mode of operation did not apply, as it was this case that extended the scope of the doctrine.

One of the facts in this case that goes to mode of operation is that alcoholic beverages were served in plastic cups so that patrons could consume their beverages on the dance floor. They were frequently drinking on the dance floor and spilling drinks.  The plastic cup was so there was no broken glass on the dance floor.

The court concluded that the club had a mode of operation that likely led to a wet dance floor and a wet dance floor could lead to plaintiff’s being injured if they slipped and fell. While it would be very difficult to see a wet spot on a crowded dance floor, the club owners should have known this was likely to occur.  However, this was different from having actual or constructive knowledge of the actual spill that caused plaintiff to be injured.

The court held that requiring the plaintiff to have to prove that defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the actual dangerous condition in cases where the defendant chose a mode of operation that was likely to cause an accident, and did in fact cause and accident in this case, would be unfair to plaintiffs.  For this reason, the mode of operation theory was extended to other types of premises liability cases.

If you have suffered personal injury in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:
Sarkisian v. Concept Restaurants, Inc., 471 Mass. (2015)

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Pontoon Boat Operator Charged With Criminal Negligence in Boy’s Death, Feb. 16, 2017, Boston Sport Injury Lawyer Blog