Are Property Owners Responsible for Sidewalks?
In many places, city-owned sidewalks run alongside residential and commercial properties. Although these sidewalks actually belong to the city (or county, or other governmental entity) which owns the land on which they sit, owners of adjacent private property may still have a duty relating to the sidewalk.
PROPERTY OWNERS HAVE A DUTY NOT TO CREATE HAZARDS ON SIDEWALKS
Property owners have a duty not to act in any way that creates a dangerous condition on sidewalks adjacent to their properties. For example, property owners must not allow their landscaping to grow in ways that block visibility, raising the risk or creating a likelihood of traffic accidents.
IS THERE A DUTY TO REPAIR A PUBLIC SIDEWALK?
Owners of private property do not generally have a duty to maintain or repair public sidewalks adjacent to their properties. Exceptions to this rule do exist, however.
In some cities and municipalities, local laws (“statutes”) require property owners to maintain and repair sidewalks adjacent to their properties. Other laws may require homeowners to alert the city (or a specific governmental agency) to hazardous conditions on the sidewalk, so the government can repair or mitigate the danger.
Where a property owner (or elements on the owner’s property) damages an adjacent sidewalk, the property owner does often have a duty to repair the sidewalk and to warn the public of the dangerous condition. Tree roots form one of the most common forms of “privately caused” damage to public sidewalks. In many cases, the owner of the property upon which the tree sits is responsible for repairing the damage to the sidewalk–and potentially also liable for injuries resulting from the broken or damaged sidewalk.
Property owners should pay attention to trees, hedges, and other landscape elements to ensure that they do not cause hazards to people and vehicles on sidewalks adjacent to the property.
Property owners usually cannot alter public sidewalks without obtaining permission from appropriate governmental entities. Even once permission is obtained, the property owner must repair, change and/or maintain altered sidewalks in reasonably safe condition.
DO PROPERTY OWNERS HAVE LIABILITY FOR OTHER PEOPLES’ ACTS?
Generally, property owners do not have a duty to warn the public about the acts of third parties not within the property owner’s actual or legal control. For example, there is no duty to warn passersby about the danger of stepping or slipping on dog droppings left by pets which do not belong to the property owner.
However, property owners do have liability where they act in a manner that increases the danger (or likelihood of harm) resulting from the actions of other people. The law refers to this as “misfeasance,” and it refers to a situation where a defendant increases the danger or likelihood of injury to a plaintiff.
By contrast, “nonfeasance” refers to a defendant who simply fails to intervene in a manner which would decrease the plaintiff’s likelihood of injury (or to help a plaintiff who has already suffered an injury).
Where a property owner negligently acts in a way which makes a plaintiff’s injury worse, the property owner may have liability even where (s)he did not create the hazard that caused the injury. However, mere failure to intervene on the plaintiff’s behalf does not create liability for a property owner unless the property owner (a) created or was responsible for the hazardous condition/injury or (b) had a legally-recognized special relationship to the defendant.
HOW CAN PROPERTY OWNERS PROTECT THEMSELVES AGAINST SIDEWALK-RELATED CLAIMS?
Property owners should maintain private property in a manner which does not create or increase the hazards associated with adjacent sidewalks. This includes maintaining landscaping and preventing landscape elements from growing over or interfering with sidewalks and the use of public spaces. In addition, property owners should notify appropriate governmental entities of sidewalk hazards. Finally, property owners should be aware of and comply with all applicable laws and regulations.
While these actions alone cannot guarantee a property owner will remain free of liability, regular inspection, proper maintenance, and proper reporting (or mitigation) of hazards are strong steps toward protecting yourself and your property from hazards and legal liability.
Where property is open to the public on a commercial basis, landlords and business owners should be aware that the duty of care may be higher, and should seek and obtain a clear analysis of their individual rights and obligations with regard to inspections and the condition of the property.
Consult with a lawyer or other specialist to ensure you understand your legal rights and obligations, and always comply with your legal duty to maintain, inspect, and repair property. Ignorance of the law is not a defense.
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice to any person or entity, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any person or entity. Premises liability is a complex legal topic, and no single article can provide complete or comprehensive coverage or information about this or any other legal topic or issue. Your personal liability may differ, based on your individual facts and circumstances. If you believe you have a legal claim or issue, or wish to know more about your individual rights, consult an experienced attorney without delay.