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Sidewalk Trip and Fall . . . Who is at Fault? Who Pays?

May 1, 2013 

Category:  Streets and Sidewalks

Sidewalk Trip and Fall . . . Who is at Fault? Who Pays?

Many damage claims are brought against municipalities as a result of someone slipping, tripping, or falling on a sidewalk. If a jurisdiction fails to keep its sidewalks in a reasonable state of repair, free of dangerous and unsafe conditions, the results can be costly in terms of injury claims. While many jurisdictions have ordinances that impose the responsibility and cost of sidewalk repair upon abutting property owners, they do not relieve the city from liability from unsafe sidewalks.

A recent court of appeals case takes a look at this sidewalk liability question. Millson v. City of Lynden, ___ Wn. App. ___ (04/01/2013).  In this case, the plaintiff walked along a city sidewalk that was not in good repair.  Distracted, she tripped on a raised portion of the sidewalk, falling and sustaining injuries.  She sued. The trial court ruled that the sidewalk defect was "open and obvious" to the plaintiff, effectively relieving the city of its duty to keep the sidewalks "reasonably safe" for their intended use  On appeal, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's ruling, stating:

A municipality has a duty to pedestrians using its sidewalks to keep the sidewalks      reasonably safe for their intended use.   Generally, "[a] pedestrian on a sidewalk who has no knowledge to the contrary may proceed on the assumption that the city has performed its full duty and has kept the sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition . . . ."  Nor is a pedestrian "required to keep his eyes on the walk immediately in front of him at all times."   And the fact that there is an offset that a pedestrian could see if he looked "does not constitute . . . negligence as a matter of law unless there is a duty to look for that particular thing."

(Footnotes omitted.) The fact that a visible sidewalk defect could be seen does not in itself mean that the pedestrian was negligent.  The failure to observe the defect, however, could be considered in determining the plaintiff's comparative negligence, which would reduce the damages against the city.

Note, however, that an abutting property owner can by ordinance be made legally responsible for the physical condition of a public sidewalk - and to indemnify the municipality (in whole or in part) - where that property owner causes or contributes to the condition. Rivett v. Tacoma, 123 Wn.2d 573 (1994).

For more information on sidewalk maintenance and liability, see the MRSC webpage Sidewalk Maintenance and Repair.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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