Richard Vetstein Quoted In Metrowest Daily News About Changes In Massachusetts Snow Removal Law

From the Metrowest Daily News

A recent state Supreme Court ruling makes it clear: Home and business owners are potentially liable if someone slips and falls on their icy or snowy property.

Driveways, walks and sidewalks – “any place on the property where a guest or a visitor or a FedEx man or a mailman could trip” – must now be cleared and treated, says Framingham real estate attorney Richard Vetstein.

So as businesses reopen and snowed-in residents dig themselves out from this week’s nor’easter, lawyers are advising they heed the ruling and take “reasonable care” to keep visitors on their two feet.

“What I’m telling everyone is when the blizzard ends, get out there and clear it off and put ice melt out there and make it safe,” Vetstein said yesterday. “You just can’t leave it alone anymore.”

Some communities already had bylaws requiring citizens and commercial property owners to be responsible neighbors.

A general bylaw in Milford, which Town Counsel Gerald Moody said is “probably of quite ancient vintage,” requires property owners to get rid of snow and ice on sidewalks within 24 hours.

The penalty is a $10 fine.

“It does create a legal responsibility,” Moody said.

But in general, Bay State property owners weren’t required to shovel and salt after a storm until state Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants in July overruled 125 years of legal precedent.

In his ruling on Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., Gants sided with a man who sued the retailer after sliding on a patch of ice in a Danvers store parking lot.

“You own a house in Framingham on Carter Drive, you need to get out there and shovel your sidewalk as soon as reasonably practical. Otherwise, someone slips and you can be held liable,” Vetstein said. “That’s the new rule.”

Moody said the ruling is “a very important one.”

“It’s actually good for everybody because now there’s one standard that everybody’s going to be held to,” he said.

In Framingham, the Department of Public Works plows 78 miles of sidewalk with tractors, compared to 250 miles of roadway.

Between the cost and logistics of pulling together manpower and equipment, the town isn’t able to clear more sidewalks, said Highway Director Jim Murphy.

“Of course time, as they always say, is money,” he said.

Murphy said the focus is on making downtown safe, and digging out crosswalks and creating pathways for children to get to and from schools.

“If people choose to walk in the road itself, it’s always dangerous, plus now you’ve got a bank that’s three or four feet tall,” Murphy said.

The town of Natick takes responsibility for clearing more than 40 miles of sidewalks along main roads and near schools.

As snow piled up from this season’s first big storm, crews were out at least once since Sunday opening the walks, said Highway Superintendent Thomas Hladick said. They were headed back out yesterday afternoon with snowblowers.

Some communities, such as Newton, Worcester and Boston, have passed ordinances forcing residents and businesses to make sidewalks that border their property safe.

With the requirement now on everyone, Vetstein said it will be up to personal injury lawyers and civil courts to enforce.

Vetsein wrote about the ruling on his blog, massrealestatelawblog.com. He encourages property owners to review their insurance policies and consider upping their liability coverage.

The most frequently asked questions Moody receives on Milford’s sidewalk policy, he says, are from attorneys representing people who slip or insurance companies trying to defend subscribers.

“Juries will typically look at these kinds of things reasonably,” he said.

(Danielle Ameden can be reached at 508-626-4416 or dameden@cnc.com.)

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