There appears to be no legal distinction between streets and alleys as to the rules that govern them. Though, Washington statutes do make some definitional distinctions between streets and alleys:
- RCW 46.04.020 defines an "alley" as "a public highway not designated for general travel and used primarily as a means of access to the rear of the residence and business establishments." (My emphasis.)
- RCW 46.04.120 defines "city street" as "every public highway, or part thereof located within the limits of cities and towns, except alleys." (My emphasis.)
Regardless of these definitional distinctions, case law considers alleys to be the same as streets, reflecting the general rule as stated in McQuillin, The Law of Municipal Corporations, §30:10 (2014):
Public alleys, like streets, are under the control of municipal authorities, and the prevailing rule is that there is no distinction, in law, between a public street and a public alley, and hence a public alley is governed by the rules applicable to streets...
The only Washington case law that we could find that squarely addresses whether there is any distinction between streets and alleys for purposes of the duty of care owed by a city is Ferguson v. Yakima, 139 Wash. 216, 219-20 (1926), where the court held:
The alleys in a city, platted and dedicated to public use, are as much public highways as are the streets therein. (Rem. Comp. Stat., § 9292 [P. C. § 1181]; Carroll v. Centralia Water Co., 5 Wash. 613, 32 Pac. 609, 33 P. 431.) They are under the control of the public authorities of such city (Rem. Comp. Stat., § 9294) [P. C. § 1267], and it is as much the duty of the city to keep them in repair for public use as it is its duty to keep in repair the highways more commonly called streets. In all instances, whether the highway be a street or alley, reasonable care in this regard must be exercised. What will constitute reasonable care, must, of course, vary with the circumstances. Reasonable care in the upkeep of an outlying and little used street might be gross negligence when applied to the much used streets in the more congested business portion of the city, but the legal duty is the same in every instance, the care exercised must be commensurate with the circumstances. The same rule applies to alleys. Little or no care in one instance might be reasonable care, while in another it would be gross negligence. It is, therefore, incorrect to say, as the trial court did say in the instruction given, that a city is not obliged to keep an alley in the same condition for travel as it is required to keep a street or a sidewalk. There is no such general rule. Instances are present in every city where acts and omissions in the care of an alley would be negligence, while the same acts and omissions would be reasonable care with respect to a street or sidewalk.
Nor is it a general rule that a person who travels upon or across an alley, whether in the night-time or daytime, must exercise a higher and greater degree of care for his own safety than when traveling upon or along a street or sidewalk. The traveler's duty in every instance is to exercise that degree of care the circumstances and conditions require; that is to say, he must exercise that degree of care a reasonably prudent person would exercise under like and similar circumstances.
Citing Ferguson v. Yakima, the court in Burkhard v. Bowen, 32 Wn.2d 613, 620 (1949), stated: "It would seem that this court has, for all practical purposes, treated alleys the same as roads, highways or streets."
In an unpublished court of appeals decision, Skubatch v. City of Seattle, No. 50202-6-I, 2003 Wash. App. LEXIS 72 (2003), the court, also citing Ferguson v. Yakima, held:
The City's standard of care, as enunciated in Keller, is to exercise ordinary care in the maintenance of its roadways in a reasonably safe manner for the foreseeable acts of those using the roadways 8 This same standard applies to the maintenance of alleys. 9
(Emphasis added. Footnote 9 cites Ferguson.)
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