Slip, trip and fall injuries from damaged, uneven, or icy sidewalks can change your life. Here’s what you need to know to seek fair compensation for your damages.
Most of us never give a second thought to sidewalks. They’re everywhere. New York City alone has over 12,000 miles of sidewalks used by pedestrians every day.¹
We just assume all sidewalks are safe. Unfortunately, a crack in the pavement, chipped piece of concrete, or sudden change in elevation can shatter that assumption in a split second.
Slips, trips, and falls can result in serious, sometimes life-threatening injuries.
More than 80,000 people end up in the hospital every year from serious fall injuries, most often suffering from head trauma or a broken hip.²
When damaged, uneven or slippery sidewalks cause severe injuries, it’s understandable to want compensation. Here’s what you need to know about determining who is responsible, and how to build a strong insurance claim.
Common Causes of Sidewalk Accidents
Whether you’re out for a scenic stroll, or briskly walking to an appointment, the last thing you expect is a painful trip and fall injury. Some of the most common causes of sidewalk injuries are:
Cracks: Large cracks are quite common in sidewalks. Cracks can develop over time from age, soil conditions, tree roots, weather changes, and seasonal temperature changes. Sometimes cracks result from inferior materials used to build or repair the sidewalk.
Buckling: Large, uneven slabs of broken concrete are often caused by tree roots pushing up from underneath the sidewalk.
Uneven pavement: Uneven sidewalks develop when concrete or asphalt separate. Pooling water can freeze and heave up sections of pavement, as can tree roots, or heavy traffic, like where sidewalks cross driveways.
Grates and manholes: City sidewalks often have embedded metal grates, manhole covers, or cellar doors. Deterioration of the metal object or the concrete edging can cause dangerous holes and uneven walking surfaces.
Gas caps: Gas and utility pipes with caps that stick up from sidewalks are trip hazards for pedestrians.
Loose bricks: Cobblestone walkways are quaint and picturesque, but can be dangerous when bricks or stones are crumbling, broken, or missing.
Snow and ice: Failure to remove snow and ice from walkways can lead to severe slip and fall injuries.
Construction flaws: Dangerous sidewalks can result from using the wrong materials for the location and weather, not considering drainage for the area, and improper installation or repairs.
Debris: Trashcans, overflowing trash, fallen leaves and tree limbs, and children’s toys are just some of the material that can cause a pedestrian to trip and fall.
Pedestrians most at risk for severe injuries are:
- Senior citizens
- Parents with strollers
- Persons with mobility challenges
- Persons with assistive devices like canes, walkers, and wheelchairs
Residential and Business Sidewalks
In general, home and business owners must repair cracks, uneven pavement, and buckling in the sidewalk adjoining their property. It’s the property owner’s responsibility to keep the sidewalks around their property safe for pedestrians. Their responsibility includes timely removal or treatment of snow and ice.
The same sidewalk safety requirements apply to condominium and apartment complex owners.
Cities and towns across the United States have different rules and regulations about sidewalk maintenance. Most municipalities hold home and business owners responsible for maintaining the sidewalks fronting or adjoining their property.
Private property owners sometimes receive notices from the city based on the city’s sidewalk regulations. The notice is an order to repair what the municipality determines is a defect or dangerous condition.
The property owner’s failure to repair the problem can result in a ticket. In some cases, the city will repair the sidewalk damage and charge the property owner for the cost of repairs.
If you fell over a bicycle your neighbors’ child left on the sidewalk in front of his parent’s home, the parents may be responsible. A store owner may be responsible if you suffer a sidewalk injury by slipping and falling on accumulated ice or snow in front of the store.
Government Controlled Sidewalks
Sidewalks not adjoining private property are normally the responsibility of the federal, state, or municipal authority in control of the sidewalk. Just like private walkways, government-owned or controlled sidewalks must stay safe and free of dangerous conditions that may result in injuries to pedestrians.
Example: Slip and Fall on Government Sidewalk
Eunice Brown went to the local post office to mail her granddaughter’s birthday present. As Ms. Brown walked along the sidewalk leading to the main entrance, she tripped on a buckled section of concrete and fell hard.
Ms. Brown was rushed to the hospital with a fractured hip. Despite surgery, she was permanently disabled by her injuries.
In this case, the federal government would probably be liable for her medical bills, related expenses, and pain and suffering.
Unlike private property owners who can easily maintain their sidewalks, government authorities are often responsible for hundreds, even millions of square feet of sidewalks.
It’s unreasonable for a municipality to have to patrol every square foot of sidewalk. That would require hundreds of people patrolling to look for defects.
Federal, state, and local governments have special rules in place to protect them from lawsuits. That said, it is still possible to pursue an injury claim against the government.
Just like claims against a business or homeowner, you’ll have to prove the government is responsible for your injuries.
Adequate Notice of the Sidewalk Defect
Typically, unless your municipality has actual or constructive notice of the defect or dangerous condition, they have no liability for injuries.
Actual notice is a citizen’s written complaint. Of course, even with notice, if the defect or dangerous condition is minor, the municipality might not be held liable.
Constructive notice refers to conditions that are so obviously dangerous the municipality should have addressed them. Obvious dangers might include a large, easy to see pothole or an uneven piece of sidewalk that separated more than several inches.
If you tripped and fell on a piece of sidewalk that had a small crack in it, the city is probably not liable. The defect in the sidewalk was minor enough to escape the city’s notice.
Some municipalities have regulations about how big a crack or hole must be before the city becomes liable, whether they had notice or not.
Sovereign Immunity and Tort Claims Act
Governments in the United States have special protections against lawsuits called Sovereign Immunity, which is a legal term meaning the government is immune from lawsuits brought by citizens.
Sovereign immunity is a legal rule that prevents the government or its subdivisions, departments, and agencies from being sued without its consent.
Originally, sovereign immunity only protected the federal government. Today, most state and city governments assert the same kind of protection from claims and lawsuits.
Fortunately, most federal, state and local governments will waive sovereign immunity in private injury claims. Sidewalk injuries are a type of injury for which the government may waive immunity.
Sidewalk injury claims against federal agencies, like the post office, are made under the rules of the Tort Claims Act. Many states and cities have their own version of the Tort Claims Act to process injury claims by private citizens.
Filing an injury claim under the Tort Claims Act is different from filing a claim against a homeowner or business.
Claims against government agencies have special paperwork that must be filled out exactly right and submitted under tight deadlines. If you make a mistake, your claim will be rejected.
Don’t risk losing your right to compensation. Contact a personal injury attorney to discuss a claim against the government.
Proving Liability for a Sidewalk Accident
When a property owner or municipality responsible for a public sidewalk knows or should know about a problem and fails to fix it, they’re negligent.
If their negligence results in injuries, then the property owner or municipality is liable, meaning responsible, for the injured person’s damages.
Damages for personal injuries can include the cost of:
- Medical and dental treatment
- Out of pocket expenses
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
A property owner isn’t liable every time a pedestrian gets hurt on their sidewalk. Owners are legally entitled to a reasonable amount of time to discover a dangerous sidewalk condition and do something about it.
For example, let’s say a heavy snowstorm came in overnight. A pedestrian walking down Main Street at midnight, while it was still snowing, and slipped and fell in front of a closed candy store.
In this case, the candy store owner probably would not be liable. There just wasn’t a reasonable amount of time for the store owner to remove the snow from the walk.
Most cities allow businesses and homeowners from four to 24 hours to clear public walks. Many lawmakers only require snow removal during daylight hours.
To prove liability for sidewalk injuries, you must show:
- The property owner was aware or should have been aware of the dangerous condition.
- A reasonable person would know the dangerous sidewalk could result in injuries.
- The property owner did not take reasonable steps to correct the dangerous condition.
- The property owner’s negligence was the direct cause of your injuries.
- Your injuries are real and verifiable.
- You didn’t contribute to the circumstances that caused your injuries.
Understanding Contributory and Comparative Negligence
When the injured person is partially to blame for the circumstance causing them to trip and fall on a sidewalk, it can cost them part, if not all of their potential compensation.
For example, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of distracted and drunk pedestrians. Insurance companies will be quick to point out that you might not have tripped over that crack in the sidewalk if you hadn’t been so busy texting or intoxicated while walking.
Contributory Negligence rules affect personal injury claims in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. If the insurance company blames you as little as one percent for your injuries, they will use pure contributory negligence rules to deny your claim.
Comparative Negligence or modified comparative negligence rules are used in most states. Under comparative fault rules, you have the right to pursue an injury claim even if you’re partially to blame for your injuries. Your compensation is reduced in proportion to your share of the blame.
Collecting Evidence For a Strong Claim
You’ll need to gather evidence to prove the property owner’s liability and the extent of your injuries. Good evidence includes:
Photographs: Use your cell phone to photograph the defect or dangerous condition on the sidewalk. Use a ruler, or something for comparison like a pen or soda can, to show the size of the crack or height of the uneven portion of the sidewalk.
Be sure to take enough photographs to make clear the sidewalk’s location and the extent of the problem.
Witness statements: Ask anyone who was there when you fell to write down everything they saw. Ask them to sign and date their witness statement.
Ask around the neighborhood to look for other property owners or residents who knew about the sidewalk’s dangerous condition. If so, take down their names and contact information. If anyone previously sent notices to the city about the sidewalk problem, ask for copies.
Surveys: If the property owner claims they aren’t responsible for the sidewalk causing your injury, act fast. If it turns out the city maintains the sidewalk, you’ll only have a short time to file a claim.
You can determine if the property owner owns the sidewalk with a visit to your local property tax department. There you can look up the property address and see the survey plot marking the property’s exact boundaries. The tax office clerk will usually make a copy for you for a small fee.
Damages: If you don’t have monetary damages, you don’t have a case. To obtain a settlement from a private property owner’s insurance company or a municipality, you must prove the extent of your injuries with:
- Copies of your medical records and bills
- Receipts for out-of-pocket expenses like medicines or crutches
- Statement of lost wages
- Evidence of your pain and suffering
Getting Fair Injury Compensation
Private property owners normally carry business or homeowner’s insurance. Most homeowner policies have two kinds of injury coverage:
Med-pay coverage will pay medical bills and related expenses for slip and fall injuries without having to prove the homeowner was to blame. Med-pay coverage limits are usually under $5,000 and won’t pay for pain and suffering.
Liability coverage limits are much higher, typically from $100,000 to $300,000. The insurance company will not pay liability claims unless there is proof the homeowner was liable for the accident.
If you’ve recovered from minor soft tissue injuries, like sprains, cuts, or bruises, you can probably handle your own claim for Med-pay coverage.
Add up all your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages. You can add one or two times that amount for pain and suffering, but you probably won’t get it.
Send your demand letter with copies of your bills, receipts, and other evidence.
Look like a pro with our sample Personal Injury Demand Letter.
If your injuries are more serious hard injuries like broken bones, scarring, or head injuries, you’ll need an experienced personal injury attorney.
Hard injuries are high-dollar claims that can be difficult to negotiate. Insurance companies are known to offer much lower settlement amounts to claimants who aren’t represented by an attorney.
There’s too much at stake to risk handling a high-dollar or complicated claim on your own. You’ll need expert legal advice to handle claims involving:
- Accusations of comparative fault
- Property owners who won’t provide insurance information
- Government agencies
- Injuries to children
- Wrongful death claims
- Permanent or disabling injuries
If you or a loved have been badly injured from falling on a slippery or damaged sidewalk, you deserve fair compensation. It costs nothing to find out what a skilled personal injury attorney can do for you.
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Sidewalk Injury Claim Questions & Answers
I was on a run last Thursday night (around 11:30 PM) and I tripped on a sidewalk that had been raised due to a tree…
My 74 year old mother in law was walking on the sidewalk and tripped on a crack that extended from one side of the sidewalk…
I was walking my dog around my Dad’s neighborhood and tripped on an uneven sidewalk. This was two days ago. I think I may have…
I’m the owner of a commercial property New Jersey. A pedestrian tripped and fell on the sidewalk by the building. The city’s tree was overgrown…
I was walking on sidewalk and tripped and fell. This sidewalk has a large lifted area straight across that needs to be fixed. I volunteer…
I was getting out my car carrying my friend’s baby. I was stepping onto the sidewalk and there was a hole where a tree use…
I was coming out of a Navy federal credit union (the credit union is in a plaza) about 9 days ago when I stepped on…