Sidewalks are in place to give people a safe place to walk in their communities—and yet, injury accidents still occur on sidewalks quite frequently. In many cases, the sidewalk itself is the cause of the accident.
Many property owners in California are surprised to learn that under state law, they are responsible for maintaining safe conditions on public sidewalks next to their property.
Liability between local municipalities and property owners for the condition of the sidewalk and injuries suffered by people using the defective sidewalk is often a confusing issue of statutory provisions and personal injury lawsuits.
In California, local cities and counties typically own the sidewalks next to private property. Still, as noted, state law says landowners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk safely in front of their property.
For example, California Streets and Highways Code 5610 says, “The owners of lots or portions of lots fronting on any portion of a public street or place when that street or place is improved or if and when the area between the property line of the adjacent property and the street line is maintained as a park or parking strip, shall maintain any sidewalk in such condition that the sidewalk will not endanger persons or property and maintain it in a condition which will not interfere with the public convenience in the use of those works….”
Further, state law says that a municipality could charge landowners for the cost to the city to maintain sidewalks if they fail to perform their duty. Still, this is an optional decision, not a mandatory requirement.
On the issue of liability, the common question is always what happens if the owner does not maintain safe sidewalk conditions and a third party is injured? Let's review in more detail this common confusing subject below.
What Factors Are Considered?
Most sidewalks are considered public property, so if you're injured in a sidewalk accident, the big question is: who may be held liable for your injuries?
This question is complex because there are quite a few factors to consider, including:
- Where the sidewalk is located (i.e., on public or private property);
- Who is responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk (e.g., city government, business owner);
- The condition of the sidewalk;
- The circumstances behind the accident;
- Whether anyone else was involved in the accident;
- Whether you were behaving safely or unsafely on the sidewalk.
While state laws say that landowners are responsible for sidewalk maintenance and could be charged with the cost of repairs, they might not be liable for injuries or damages to third parties using the sidewalk unless the city enacts an ordinance to deal with the liability issue.
What Are the Common Causes of Sidewalk Injuries?
In some instances, sidewalk injuries are caused by collisions—for example, a runner or bicyclist on the sidewalk collides with a pedestrian. Some of the more common causes of sidewalk injuries include:
- Sidewalk defects, such as cracks, potholes, etc.
- Uneven sidewalk surfaces, such as when a tree root pushes one sidewalk slab higher than another;
- Icy or slippery conditions;
- Poor lighting;
- Obstructions on the sidewalk, such as trash, parked cars, and construction equipment;
- Poorly designed or constructed sidewalks;
- Collisions with other sidewalk users.
Who May Be Held Liable for Your Sidewalk Injury?
As noted, determining liability for a sidewalk injury can be a complicated matter. It depends on the type of accident (i.e., slip-and-fall, collision) and who was responsible for the conditions that caused the accident.
Even in jurisdictions that have enacted liability shifting ordinances, it must be determined what was the cause of the defective sidewalk condition. In some city ordinances, liability doesn't change to the landowner if they didn't cause the defective condition to exist.
The city, and sometimes the adjacent property owner, could be held liable for negligence in causing a dangerous and defective public sidewalk causing personal injuries.
Further, sometimes other parties could be held liable. For example, suppose a hired contractor or a home builder negligently repairs a sidewalk resulting in injuries. On the other hand, consider a landscape architect negligently plants a tree or large shrubs distorting the sidewalk. In that case, they could be held liable for someone's injuries.
Suppose the local government is at fault. In that case, they remain liable despite the duty to maintain safe sidewalks imposed upon the landowner. Simply put, a public entity, usually a city or municipality, is responsible for injuries caused by a dangerous condition on the public sidewalk negligently created by their employees.
Government Code Section 835 says, “Except as provided by statute, a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either:
(a) A negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or
(b) The public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under Section 835.2 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.”
Slip-and-Fall Sidewalk Accidents
In California, the liability for a slip-and-fall sidewalk accident usually falls on the shoulders of the property owner—whether that's a homeowner, business owner, or even a public entity.
This is because property owners are legally responsible for keeping their sidewalks safe. This falls under the category of premises liability.
However, there are a few variables to consider. For example, the city may be responsible for public sidewalks' overall upkeep and condition.
Still, local ordinances may also require business owners or homeowners to keep the sidewalks in front of their property clear of obstructions, debris, snow, and ice, in mountainous areas, for example. These factors will all inform who is responsible for your injuries:
- For walkways on private property—the property owner may be held liable.
- For public walkways in general—the local government responsible for upkeep may be held liable.
- For public walkways where home and business owners are responsible for keeping the walkway clear—it depends on the cause of your accident. If the accident occurred due to a temporary obstruction like debris or snow, the local home or business owner might be liable if they had a duty of care to clear it. The government may be liable if the accident occurred due to irregularities in the sidewalk itself.
Collisions on Sidewalks
Suppose your sidewalk injury occurred due to a collision with another party on the sidewalk, such as a bicyclist or runner. In that case, your personal injury claim may work similarly to if you had been involved in a car accident with another driver.
The primary variable is to determine who was at fault in the accident. If the other party behaved negligently or recklessly. For example, if a bicyclist was using the sidewalk illegally, you may have a claim against them.
However, if you were partially at fault for the accident—for example, if you weren't paying attention and walked into the path of a runner—then your damages may be reduced by your percentage of fault in the accident.
Complications in Suing the Government for Damages
Suppose your accident occurred on a public sidewalk where the local government is at fault. In that case, you can sue the government—but the process works differently than a standard premises liability claim.
That's because governments have what is called "sovereign immunity," which means that they cannot be sued for damages unless they have been permitted to do so, usually through legislation.
California does allow citizens to sue the government for damages under the terms of the California Tort Claims Act, but there are specific conditions involved, including the following:
- You must file a notice of claim with the government within a limited time frame before filing suit. If you fail to file this notice within the specified time, usually a short window, you forfeit your right to compensation.
- There may be limits to how much you can claim in damages. This depends on several factors, including the type of accident and the provisions of local laws.
Because of the complexities involved in holding the government liable in a sidewalk injury accident, you should always work with an experienced attorney to ensure you receive the compensation you deserve.
You can contact our law firm for a free case consultation by phone or using the contact form. You don't pay any fees unless we win your case. Injury Justice Law firm is located in Los Angeles, CA.