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Dangerous Sidewalks

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

For most, a stroll on a sidewalk can be relaxing. For a lawyer, it can be a legal firestorm. Personal injury lawyers, like ourselves, are well aware of the laws that govern who is responsible for maintaining sidewalks. Our firm has recently been involved with very complex sidewalk litigation, and have extensive experience dealing with sidewalk matters.

Sidewalk litigation heats up when there is something in the sidewalk, near the area where someone fell. For instance, sidewalks commonly have manholes or electrical boxes installed in them. In such scenarios the “12 inch rule” kicks in. This rule requires owners of grates, manholes, boxes, and anything else installed in a sidewalk, to maintain what they own, as well as the 12 inches surrounding their installation.

For starters, every municipality may have different laws regarding their sidewalks. This article will focus on the laws of the City of New York. Any analysis of sidewalk laws begins with NYC Administrative Code 7-210, aka “7-210”, which declares that even though The City of New York generally owns the sidewalks of NYC, the landlords whose property is next to the sidewalk must maintain the sidewalk. However, this only applies if the building is partly used for commercial purposes, or is vacant, or is not owner occupied, or has four or more families residing in it.

Then there is another issue: treewells. The Court of Appeals, the highest Court in the State of New York, decided that treewells are not technically part of the sidewalk, at least for purposes of 7-210 liability. Therefore, treewells remain the responsibility of the City of New York under all circumstances. But there appears to be a wrinkle to this as well. The NYC Department of Transportation’s rules state that after a tree pit is installed in a sidewalk, the permitee (installer) must maintain the treewell during a “guarantee period”, which lasts a few years.

Bus stops are another issue. Even if a commercial building is next to a sidewalk, the City of New York is still responsible for bus stop areas of the sidewalk. But what is a bus stop area is a whole other issue. We were recently involved in a situation where a woman was getting off a bus and stepped into a hole on the sidewalk. We contended that the area where our client fell was not part of the bus stop since there was no bus shelter there, or even a pole. The Court agreed.

In NYC, the curb is not considered a sidewalk, at least not when dealing with 7-210. Why aren’t treewells and curbs included in the term “sidewalk”? Because 7-210, which was only enacted a bit over 10 years ago, changed the laws of sidewalks that had been around for hundreds of years, in a dramatic way. The basic rule is that when a law (like 7-210) changes the law that had been around for ages, the law is read in the most limited way possible. Therefore, since 7-210 didn’t explicitly say it includes treewells, curbs and bus stops, and it didn’t define what a sidewalk is, curbs, treewells and bus stops are out.

Why does it matter who is responsible for a sidewalk? We as lawyers have to be concerned with this issue since we need to make sure we sue the right people and entities. But there is a big difference, too. The City of New York is only held responsible for sidewalk defects if it created them, had a special use for the area where the defect is, or had prior written notice of the defect’s existence at least 15 days before someone fell on it. These are very difficult to prove. Anyone else, however, can be liable as long as they either knew of the condition, or should have known of the condition, which is a lot easier to prove. Please contact one of our lawyers for a free consultation if you have questions.

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