Personal Injury Liability for Accidents on Sidewalks

Fault for injuries caused by dangerous sidewalk conditions depends on the circumstances of the accident and on local laws.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

When a pedestrian is injured on a sidewalk—tripping over a cracked or broken section, or slipping and falling on ice or slippery surfaces, for example—legal responsibility hinges on the status of the sidewalk in question, local laws, and the availability of certain defenses. In this article, we'll take a closer look at key issues that often arise when an injury occurs on a sidewalk.

Public Versus Private Sidewalks

Sidewalks can be public or private property. Public sidewalks, which are the most common type, are normally pedestrian paths separating private property from the adjacent public streets. Private sidewalks serve a similar purpose, but are located solely on private property. An example of the latter type would be a walkway within a private housing development.

Local Laws on Sidewalk Maintenance

Responsibility for maintenance of sidewalks, whether public or private, varies from locality to locality. For example, in some cities and towns, the sidewalk is public property and maintenance and upkeep is the responsibility of local authorities.

In downtown Chicago, for example, the city government removes snow and ice on sidewalks, picks up litter, and repairs broken sidewalks. In smaller cities and suburbs—particularly in residential areas—sidewalks are still public property, but maintenance and upkeep are the responsibility of the adjacent homeowners. This means that homeowners are responsible for clearing the sidewalks of snow and debris, and are financially responsible for replacement of any sidewalk when local authorities deem such work necessary.

Maintenance and repair of private sidewalks is generally the responsibility of the owner of the sidewalk. This could be an individual, a business, or a homeowners' association.

When an injury occurs as the result of improper maintenance or repair of a sidewalk, local ordinances often govern from whom an injured party may recover.

Government vs. Private Owner Liability for Sidewalk Injuries

Depending upon local law, either property owners or local municipalities (the city, county or state) may be liable for injuries sustained on public sidewalks. In some areas, the sidewalk is not considered private property and so a homeowner cannot be sued for any injury sustained on the sidewalk.

In other cases, such as slips and falls on ice, a homeowner may be liable because snow removal is the homeowner's responsibility. The interplay of the circumstances of a particular injury with the specifics of local law are key in determining who may be liable for a slip and fall on an unreasonably dangerous section of sidewalk.

Some jurisdictions assign liability for sidewalk injuries to the local municipalities charged with maintaining the sidewalk. In these jurisdictions, an injured party is usually able to file a claim against the city for any injuries sustained, but a strict procedure must be followed. More on this in the next section.

Learn more about city liability for sidewalk slip and fall injuries.

Defenses in Sidewalk Injury Cases

When assessing who may be potentially liable for a sidewalk injury, it's important to consider potential defenses to your claim. The doctrine of governmental immunity often shields municipal bodies from liability for negligence. But all states have carved out exceptions to this immunity when it comes to injury claims against the government. While you cannot file a lawsuit right away, you can file a notice of claim which can protect your right to eventually get compensation for your injuries. The claim procedures and requirements vary by locality, so check with your municipality or a local attorney to understand how these rules work.

Another common defense to sidewalk injuries is the "open and obvious doctrine," which pins some amount of liability on the injured person if the sidewalk hazard was open, obvious, and easily avoided.

As you can see, the law governing liability for sidewalk injuries is extremely location-specific. Depending on where the injury occurred, how it occurred, and what the actual sidewalk defect was, either a private party or a governmental body could be liable. Or, you could share some measure of fault for your own injury. Especially if your injuries are signficant, and you'd like to understand your rights and your legal options, your best first step might be discussing your situation with an experienced personal injury attorney.

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