In order to hold a city or town liable for your injuries if you slip (or trip) and fall on a public street or sidewalk, as in almost any personal injury case, there must be negligence. Municipalities in most states are liable for their negligence in maintaining public streets and sidewalks, but there are two important limitations on an injured person’s right to sue a city, county, or other municipality.
First, most, if not all, states have strict notice and time deadlines for making a claim. Second, most states place a limit on how much you can recover from the state or a municipality if you win. Read on to learn more.
A municipality is only liable for a slip and fall accident on a street or sidewalk if it was negligent and its negligence was a cause of your accident. Simply because you fell on a street or sidewalk does not mean that the city or town was negligent. Further, simply because there may have been a slippery or other unsafe condition on the street or sidewalk does not mean that the city or town was negligent. The street or sidewalk had to have been unreasonably safe. Then, in order to prove that the municipality was negligent, you must prove that it knew or should reasonably have known of the unsafe condition.
The most common types of slips or trips on public streets and sidewalks are due to ice and snow or broken streets or sidewalks. However, municipalities are rarely responsible for clearing away ice and snow on sidewalks in front of private residences and commercial buildings; they are generally only responsible for clearing away ice or snow on sidewalks in front of public buildings or areas. Thus, if you slip on ice or snow on a public sidewalk in a residential area, the city or town will not generally be liable; your claim will usually be against the owner of the premises that the sidewalk is in front of. But if you slip on ice or snow on a sidewalk in a commercial area, your claim could be against either the municipality or the premises owner, depending on your state’s laws.
As in any slip and fall case, you should take pictures of the accident scene, your clothes, and any bruises that you might have received as soon as you get up (if you are able to do so). The condition of ice and snow can change within minutes. Ice can melt, or it can be cleared away. It can be difficult to impossible to win an ice and snow case without pictures showing the ice and snow as it was at the moment of your injury.
A municipality certainly has the obligation to keep its streets and sidewalks in a reasonable state of repair. Falling into a hole or tripping over a broken piece of sidewalk or street can give rise to a negligence claim, depending on the size of the hole or the break in the sidewalk or street. Again, you should take pictures immediately. It cannot be emphasized enough that a picture is worth a thousand words in a slip (or trip) and fall case.
These deadlines differ from state to state, but can include the following:
These requirements are applied more strictly in some states than in others. In some states, your claim will be barred if you send your notice to the wrong municipal department, even though it might just be down the hall from the correct department.
Moreover, you have to make sure that you make your claim against the proper governmental entity in the first place. Let’s say, for example, that you trip over the remains of a sign for a bus stop, and you give notice to the city, and only the city. But if state law holds the public transportation agency, and not the local municipality, responsible for maintaining bus stops, the city will not be liable. If you didn’t give notice to the transportation agency within the proper time period, your claim could be barred.
For more on the rules regarding accident claims against a city or other municipality, see AllLaw's section on Injury Claims Against the Government.
To make sure that you satisfy all of your state’s notification requirements, if you injured yourself on a public street or sidewalk, you should contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.
These limits will also differ from state to state, but can be very low, sometimes well under $100,000.