Sidewalk Slip and Fall: Who is Liable?

Steps to proving liability, if anyone is liable, when you fall on public sidewalks.

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If you slip and fall on a public sidewalk, who is liable? Before we answer that question, we have to step back and figure out if anyone is actually liable. Remember that, in almost any personal injury case, there must be negligence. If there is no negligence, there is no liability. (Get the basics on proving fault in an injury case.)

Negligence in a Slip and Fall Case

In order to win a slip and fall case, you must be able to prove that the property owner was negligent (i.e., that the property owner did something wrong). Simply because you slipped and fell on someone’s property (or on public property like a sidewalk) does not mean that the property owner was negligent. And the fact that the sidewalk was in a condition that caused you to slip does not automatically mean that the property owner or the municipality was negligent.

So, what's the key? First, the sidewalk had to have been in an unreasonably unsafe condition. Then, in order to prove that the property owner was negligent, you must prove that the property owner knew or should reasonably have known that the sidewalk was unreasonably unsafe.

Who is Liable for a Slip and Fall on a Public Sidewalk?

Liability for a defective condition on a public sidewalk depends on your state’s laws, and possibly even on the homeowner’s deed.

In some states, the law says that the municipality is liable for the upkeep of public sidewalks. In other states, it might be less clear. In those states where the issue is up in the air, it could be the municipality who is liable, it could be the property owner, or it could be both.

Special Rules When a Municipality Might Be Liable

If you are injured in a slip and fall on a public sidewalk, you should be aware of two important limitations on an injured person’s right to sue a municipality in most states. First, most if not all states have strict notice and time deadlines for making a personal injury claim against a municipality. Second, most states place a limit on how much you can recover from the state or a municipality if you win.

Time and Notice Deadlines for Claims Against a City or Town

These deadlines differ from state to state, but can include the following:

  • a very short (as little as 30 days) deadline to notify the proper department of the city or town in writing of the exact location and precise circumstances of your accident, and
  • a shortened deadline for filing a lawsuit (the statute of limitations) against the city or town.

Some states apply these requirements very strictly. In some states, your claim will be barred if you send your notice to the wrong municipal department, even though it might just be down the hall from the correct department.

Moreover, you have to make sure that you make your claim against the proper governmental entity in the first place. Let’s say, for example, that you trip on a broken sidewalk on a city street that goes over a state highway, and you give notice to the city only. But if state law holds the state highway department -- and not the local municipality -- responsible for maintaining the roads going over highways, the city will not be liable. If you don’t give notice to the state highway department within the proper time period, your claim could be barred.

Limits on damages will also differ from state to state when you're making an injury claim against a municipality, but they can be very low, sometimes well under $100,000.

To learn more about lawsuits against a city or town, see this section on Injury Claims Against the Government, published on AllLaw.com by Nolo.

Proving Liability in a Sidewalk Fall Case

As in any slip and fall case, you should take pictures of the accident scene, your clothes, and any bruises that you might have received, as soon as you are able to do so. Documenting the scene is crucial, and so is doing it quickly.

The city might fix a broken sidewalk the next day. Or if you slipped on ice or snow, the condition of the sidewalk can change within minutes. It can melt or be cleared away. It can be difficult to impossible to win a sidewalk slip and fall case without pictures showing the sidewalk as it was at the moment of your injury. It cannot be emphasized enough that a picture is worth a thousand words in a sidewalk slip and fall case.

Other evidence that you might need (and might need a lawyer to obtain) would be a history of any complaints that the municipality received about the defective condition on the sidewalk. Remember, it’s not enough to show that the sidewalk was in a defective condition, you have to prove that the city and/or the property owner knew or should have known about the condition. If, for example, the sidewalk had been broken for six months, and the city had received a dozen complaints about it, you would have a reasonably strong case against the city.

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