Personal injury liability for sidewalk injuries -- trips over cracked/broken sidewalks, or slips/falls on ice or slippery surfaces -- hinges on the status of the sidewalk in question, local laws, and the availability of certain defenses such as governmental immunity and the "open and obvious" doctrine. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at liability for injuries that occur on sidewalks.
Sidewalks can be public or private. Public sidewalks, which are the most common type of sidewalk, 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 within a private housing development.
Responsibility for maintenance of sidewalks, whether public or private, varies from city to city. For example, in some cities, the sidewalk is public property and maintenance and upkeep is the responsibility of local authorities.
In Downtown Chicago, for example, the city government shovels the snow, 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, local ordinances govern from whom an injured party may recover.
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 facts and circumstances of a particular injury are very important in determining who may be liable.
Some jurisdictions assign liability for sidewalk injuries to the local municipalities charged with maintaining the sidewalk. In these jurisdictions, an injured party is able to file a claim or lawsuit against the city for any injuries sustained. However, many jurisdictions prevent or limit these types of suits through the doctrine of governmental immunity. More on this in the next section.
When assessing who may be potentially liable for a sidewalk injury, it is important to consider potential defenses to your claim. As stated above, the doctrine of governmental immunity often shields municipal bodies from liability to sidewalk injury claims. Governmental immunity is not an "all or nothing" proposition. Some states, such as Michigan, have carved out exceptions to governmental immunity when a sidewalk defect is greater than two inches in size. And in most states, 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.
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. Open and obvious law changes from state to state, and is constantly in flux.
When attempting to determine who may be potentially liable for your sidewalk injury, it never hurts to consider these potential defenses. Particularly in cases where injury is slight or the defect causing the injury was obvious, seeking compensation may not be worth it in terms of time and money.
The law governing liability for sidewalk injuries is extremely jurisdictional. 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 be considered liable for your own injury. A knowledgeable local attorney is your best resource when it comes to understanding your legal options for your sidewalk injuries.