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Can I sue the city if I slip and fall on a sidewalk?

Updated: Apr 1

San Diego is getting old. Not the people necessarily, but the infrastructure. Sidewalks, roads, bridges and other public spaces are increasingly expensive to maintain, and local leaders must make choices about where to spend tax money. Do they fix a seriously busted sidewalk in Scripps Ranch or instead use those funds to defend against potential lawsuits? The crumbling concrete definitely begs the question: can you sue the city if you slip and fall on a sidewalk?


Yes, but it’s tricky. In addition to shortened filing deadlines, a plaintiff will need to show that the injury was caused by a government employee’s negligence, that the government had a duty toward the injured person, and that the government knew or should have known about the dangerous condition. If you are able to show these things in court it is still possible the government can use loopholes to try and escape liability – like I said, it’s tricky.


How badly do I need to be injured from the slip and fall?


The lawyer answer of course is “it depends,” but it needs to be worth your time and effort. A bruise, scratch or scrape that doesn’t require any professional treatment is not worth it. A twisted ankle that causes you to limp around for a day or two is also not significant enough to pursue.


On the other hand, if there are medical costs exceeding a few thousand bucks, or you’re out of work for more than a couple days, it is probably time to consider making a claim.


How bad does the sidewalk need to be?


The worse the condition of the sidewalk, the better your case.


There are no hard and fast rules about how big of a gap, ledge, lip or crack will equal negligence liability. There is a casual understanding that anything under ¾” is trivial (see below) and therefore not the government’s problem.


Most of these claims however are extremely fact dependent. Were you biking or walking? Was it day or night? Was the sidewalk in an area of very high foot traffic or was it off the beaten path? Is the damage the result of a 40-year old tree root or did something just happen last night to create the dangerous condition?


Ultimately, these questions are part of the calculation that a jury will make at the conclusion of a potential trial. Both sides will make their best case that the sidewalk was or was not unreasonably maintained. Or that the government should or should not have been aware of the situation.


What if I was drunk?


Being drunk is not unreasonable. The government knows that people drink and we have myriad laws surrounding the consumption of alcohol. Thus, the government can’t simply point at your potential drunkenness as an excuse.


To be clear, it won’t help your case, but it also won’t kill it either. A street like Garnet Ave. in Pacific Beach is littered with bars. The city knows people drink in these bars and then wander the sidewalks. We know they know because there are city police outside doing DUI checks, city fire marshals inspecting crowd sizes, city liquor licenses issued and monitored, etc. It would not be fair for the city to claim immunity simply because someone had a few drinks before being injured on a dangerous sidewalk.


When do I need to make my claim?


This is where things start to get tricky. While personal injury claims in California typically have a two-year statute of limitations, this is not the case in a sidewalk slip and fall.


As you may remember from high school, governments get to invent their own rules for how and when they can be sued. In this case, most claims against cities in San Diego County must be made within six months of the injury. Claims made after that six-month time limit are almost universally denied. This is locality-dependent so talk to a lawyer asap.


The reason I am saying “claim” and not “lawsuit” is that one of those government-invented rules is that you must follow the city’s administrative claims procedure first, and then file a lawsuit second. The city even provides a handy form for filing a claim. After submitting this form the city will ‘review’ (read: deny) your claim and you then have a short window to get a lawsuit into the court. You could technically do this by yourself, but you don’t want to.


How much money will I get from the city?


There are some big-dollar settlements in San Diego’s recent history. Regina Capobianco shattered her pelvis in La Jolla during a Segway tour in 2015. She hit a busted patch of road pavement and now says she must predominantly use a wheelchair. The San Diego City Council approved a $1.7 million payout for her in mid-2018.


In 2017 the City Council approved a nearly $5 million settlement for Clifford Brown. Mr. Brown had torn ligaments in his spinal cord after falling from a bicycle in Del Cerro after hitting a negligently maintained section of sidewalk.


Despite the large numbers above, this is obviously not the norm. Like in most personal injury cases, extraordinary injuries lead to extraordinary payouts. In a relatively famous recent suit, Cynthia Hedgecock, wife of former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, tripped on a 2.5” concrete lip in Pacific Beach. The tumble caused her breast implant to rupture and after a jury trial she was awarded $85,000.


Will I win a slip and fall case against the city?


It depends on your attorney. There are a lot of tight deadlines, unusual filing requirements and government-imposed formalities on these claims. A lot of cases are blown out of the water before they even get started because a due date is missed.


Once the deadline gauntlet is completed, there are specialized defenses that the government will attempt to use, including the big one: ‘trivial defect.’ This is a rule that says the government isn’t responsible for defects that trivial in size. Spoiler alert: they think nearly all defects are trivial.

Despite these handicaps, the city is becoming more willing to pay out settlements than in the previous decade. From 2008 to 2012 the City of San Diego paid out an average of $355,000 a year in sidewalk legal claims. Those numbers have risen since then and there are tens of millions of dollars in claims made annually.


Despite this increase in payouts, it does not appear that San Diego is prioritizing these repairs. The local PBS affiliate created an app called "Get It Done" to report issues to the city. The chart below shows the number of reported incidents and average repairs times. Note the difference between sidewalk repair timelines and everything else.


Call Christopher Marshall Law for a no-cost consultation and we can talk about your personal injury situation and determine together how to proceed. Online interactions are available via FaceTime, Skype and Zoom Meetings.

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