With winter cold settling in here in Massachusetts, it is time to get the snow blowers, shovels, and ice melt ready! But what about area schools? What obligation do cities have to keep schools and other municipal properties snow- and ice-free?
One Massachusetts parent took that issue to the Supreme Judicial Court. See Wilkins v. City of Haverhill, 468 Mass. 86 (2014). In February 2011, Michelle Wilkins was attending a parent-teacher conference when she slipped and fell on ice that had accumulated on the sidewalk of her child’s Haverhill school. Ms. Wilkins filed a complaint against the city in Superior Court, alleging that the city’s negligence in snow removal caused her injuries.
The city claimed that the “public use” or “recreational use” statute, G. L. c. 21, § 17C, immunized it from claims of negligence when it had opened its land to the public for educational purposes. The trial court ruled against Ms. Wilkins, barring her suit.
However, the S.J.C. reversed the ruling. The S.J.C. held that a school open for parent-teacher conferences is not open to the general public. Wilkins had received a special invitation; the school was closed to community members who did not have enrolled students. The court also reasoned that the “the benefit to the parent of a parent-teacher conference, albeit indirectly related to the child’s education, [does not constitute] an educational purpose for the parent within the meaning of the public use statute.” Wilkins, 468 Mass. at 91. For these reasons, the “public use” statute did not apply, and Ms. Wilkins could continue her suit.
This case, combined with the S.J.C.’s ruling in Papadopoulos v. Target Corp., 457 Mass. 368 (2010), appears to increase the possibility of municipal liability for ice- and snow-related injuries on school and other municipal properties.
If you have questions about how Massachusetts snow and ice laws affect you, or if you have suffered an injury from a slip and fall on ice or snow, contact the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. for answers and assistance.