Sidewalk Slip and Fall: Who is Liable?

How to prove liability—if anyone is liable—when you fall on a public sidewalk.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

If you slip and fall on a public sidewalk, who's liable? Before we answer that question, we need to answer this question: Is anyone liable? Remember that, in almost any personal injury case, you must prove that someone was negligent. If there's no negligence, there's no liability. The fact that you fall on a sidewalk, by itself, doesn't mean anyone was negligent.

We'll walk you through the basic rules of legal responsibility for sidewalk slip and fall accidents.

Negligence and How to Prove It in a Slip-and-Fall Case

To win a slip-and-fall case, you must prove that the property owner was negligent. Let's start by looking at the elements of a slip-and-fall negligence claim. Then we'll talk about some of the evidence you might use to prove negligence.

Elements of a Negligence in a Slip-and-Fall Claim

In most states, here's what you'll have to show to establish negligence in a slip-and-fall case:

  • there was a dangerous condition—like a crack, loose pavement, or maybe an accumulation of sleet, snow, or ice—on the sidewalk
  • the landowner knew of the dangerous condition, or would have known of it if the landowner had taken reasonable steps to inspect the sidewalk
  • the injured person wasn't likely to discover the dangerous condition, and
  • despite having a reasonable opportunity to do so, the landowner didn't warn of or fix the dangerous condition.

Evidence You Can Use to Prove Negligence

After a slip-and-fall accident and as soon as you're able, you should gather evidence to prove your claim. In particular, take pictures of the accident scene, your clothes, and any bruises or other injuries you might have suffered. Documenting the scene quickly is crucial, and here's why.

The government might fix a broken sidewalk the day after it finds out you fell. If you slip on ice or snow, the condition of the sidewalk can change within minutes—it can melt or be cleared away. You'll find it hard to win a slip-and-fall case without pictures showing what the sidewalk looked like when you fell.

You should also try to get (and might need a lawyer to obtain) a history of any complaints the landowner received about the dangerous condition. Why is this important? Again, it's not enough just to show that the sidewalk was dangerous.

To prove negligence, you must show that the property owner knew or should have known about the dangerous condition and had a fair chance to do something about it. For example, if the sidewalk was in a dangerous condition for six months, and if the city received a dozen complaints about it, you've got good proof that the landowner knew about the condition and had a reasonable amount of time to fix it.

Who's Liable for a Slip and Fall on a Public Sidewalk?

Liability (meaning legal responsibility) for a dangerous condition on a public sidewalk depends on your state's laws, and possibly even on the landowner's deed. Legal responsibility depends, in part, on who must maintain the sidewalk.

In some states, the law says that the government must maintain public sidewalks. In other states, the law is less clear. In states where the duty to maintain is uncertain, maintenance duties might rest with the government, the landowner, or maybe even both.

Special Rules When the Government Might Be Liable

If you're hurt in a slip and fall on a sidewalk the government owns or is responsible for maintaining, in most states there are important limits on your right to sue, including:

  • notice and time deadlines for bringing a personal injury claim, and
  • limits on the compensation (called "damages") you can recover.

Time and Notice Deadlines for Claims Against a City or Town

Most states require that you notify the government of your accident, often very quickly after it happens. In some states, the notice period is as short as 30 or 60 days after the date of your accident. Notice requirements tend to be strictly applied. If you mistakenly send your notice to the wrong government department—even if it's next door to the correct department—your personal injury claim probably will be prohibited.

In addition, be certain that you send your notice to the correct government. Say you trip on a broken sidewalk adjacent to a city street that goes over a state highway. You give notice only to the city.

If state law makes the state highway department and not the city responsible for maintaining roads going over highways, the city won't be liable. If you don't notify the state highway department of your accident within the allotted time, your claim likely will be barred.

Every state has a deadline, called a statute of limitations, on the time for filing personal injury claims (including slip-and-fall claims) in court. As a rule, if you don't file your lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires, your right to sue is forever lost.

In addition to notice requirements, states sometimes shorten the statute of limitations on claims against the government. Statutes of limitations are notoriously difficult to understand so if you're not certain about the time deadline in your case, speak with an experienced lawyer.

Damage Limits

States frequently limit your ability to collect both compensatory and punitive damages in suits against the government. Damage limits differ from one state to the next, and can significantly reduce the value of your slip-and-fall claim. In some states, damage caps can be as low as $100,000. In most states, you can't collect punitive damages in a lawsuit against the government.

Get Help With Your Public Sidewalk Slip-and-Fall Claim

There's a popular belief that slip-and-fall cases are easy to win. Not so. Slip-and-fall cases can be, and often are, complicated and very difficult to win. The difficulties are compounded many times over if you're bringing a claim against the government. You'll be up against special rules designed to shield the government from liability. In addition, government lawyers are pros at defeating lawsuits seeking to collect from the public treasury.

You should have expert legal counsel on your side in a public sidewalk slip-and-fall case. Here's how to find an experienced attorney in your area.

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