Icy Common Area Stairs Trip Up Association in the Appeals Court

Published on: June 1, 2010

A recent unpublished Appeals Court decision demonstrates the need for association’s to take reasonable steps to remedy known defects that create potentially hazardous conditions on the premises. In the matter of Molloy v. Board of Directors of Laurel Green, the plaintiff sustained a compression fracture of her spine due to a fall on an outside staircase in late October 2001. The plaintiff claimed that on the morning of her fall the exterior stairs were icy due to a malfunctioning sprinkler system that sprayed water onto the area. The water subsequently froze due to the cold weather. The plaintiff attempted to traverse the stairs and fell on the ice. The plaintiff’s neighbor submitted an affidavit stating that on the morning of her fall the common area sprinkler was spraying water on the stairs and the stairs were icy.

The association and property manager claimed in Superior Court that the icing was the result of a natural accumulation of water. The association and property manager also argued that there was no evidence that the sprinkler system was responsible for the ice. The Superior Court agreed and entered summary judgment on behalf of the association and property manager.

The Appeals Court strongly disagreed with the Superior Court’s view of a natural accumulation and overturned the grant of summary judgment to the association and property manager. The Appeals Court swiftly and concisely noted that water deposited by unnatural means, such as a sprinkler system, does not under any circumstance constitute a natural accumulation.

The Appeals Court also determined there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the sprinkler system created the hazardous condition and the association knew or should have known of that condition. Critical to the Appeals Court’s decision was the property manager’s testimony that he knew the sprinklers were not working correctly and sprayed water onto the stairs and walkways. The property manager admitted that the sprinklers were not designed to spray water onto the stairs and walkways. Despite this knowledge of the defect, neither the association nor the property manager repaired the sprinkler system. To make matters worse, they continued to run the sprinkler system as the weather became colder. The Appeals Court determined that the association and the property manager knew or should have known that running the malfunctioning sprinkler system in cold weather created a risk that the misdirected water would freeze and create a slipping hazard. The association could have taken steps to prevent the condition and failed to do so. The plaintiff was entitled to proceed with her personal injury claim.

The Molloy decision is important in several respects. First, an association must take reasonable steps to repair known defective or malfunctioning conditions on the premises. The fact that the sprinkler system did not operate properly was unlikely to be of much concern during the summer months. The water sprayed too far and was likely an annoyance to unit owners and residents who had to avoid the water as they used the stairs but arguably it wasn’t necessarily a hazard. The annoyance quickly turned into a defective condition once the cold weather set in. Repairing the system would have cost far less time and money than the resultant litigation.

The case is also important as it demonstrates the effect of the recent line of premises liability decisions issued by the Appeals Court. As mentioned in previous newsletters, the Appeals Court has been placing a greater burden on landowners to use reasonable care in maintaining their premises. The Soderberg decision in February 2010 significantly changed the game as it eliminated the open and obvious condition defense. The open and obvious condition defense, if available, could have potentially provided grounds for upholding the Superior Court grant of summary judgment. The plaintiff, despite observing the icy conditions, opted to proceed on the stairs. Her failure to use due care in the face of an open and obvious condition was, arguably, the cause of the accident. Before Soderberg that may have been the end of the case. Now the litigation will continue towards trial unless the parties can reach a resolution that will likely result in a significant recovery for the injured party. The decision also provides some insight into how the Appeals Court will analyze reasonable care when the Supreme Judicial Court eventually eliminates the natural accumulation defense. The Court analyzes what the association knew or should have known in light of the conditions and whether such action (or inaction) was reasonable. In this instance the failure to fix the sprinkler system (or at least turn it off when the weather turned cold) did not demonstrate reasonable care under the circumstances. Associations are not required to act perfectly but must act reasonably. Failure to do so is almost guaranteed to result in litigation.