Determining Liability in a Sidewalk Trip and Fall

Who owns the sidewalks of New York City? Usually, the City does, and based on that you might be tempted to assume that any injuries resulting from defects of those sidewalks – cracks and crevices and the like – would be the fault and responsibility of the City. You’d be wrong! And the reason you’d be wrong is the Sidewalk Law (colloquial name), passed by the City Council in 2003 to shift liability from the City to adjacent property owners of sidewalks, with some very notable and important exceptions.

Before we go into how the law works, a bit of context will be helpful. In any kind of personal injury action, a plaintiff quite naturally wants to make sure they file suit against any and all parties legally responsible for their injury, even if that responsibility is only partial. The doctrine of “joint and several liability” means that a plaintiff can collect their full recovery from any liable defendant, not merely the percentage for which that defendant is responsible. And of course, New York City is a defendant who possesses far more money, and is also often more willing to settle, than most.

sidewalk1.jpgIn a sidewalk liability case, then, the law being variable and subject to “tests”, it often makes sense for a plaintiff who has been injured after a trip and fall to file suit against both the City and the adjacent property owners. It appears that this was exactly what the plaintiff did in Meyer v. City of New York et al., a recent case decided in the Appellate Division, Second Department. The plaintiff, Ms. Meyer, tripped and fell on a publicly owned sidewalk adjacent to property owned by several defendants. In addition to the property owners, she sued the City of New York, reasoning that under the Sidewalk Law, at least one of these parties is responsible for the negligent maintenance of the sidewalk.

The Sidewalk Law states that the maintenance of sidewalks is the responsibility of the property owner whose property directly abuts that sidewalk. As such, any injuries resulting from failing to complete that maintenance properly will fall on the property owner in terms of liability. However, there is an exception: if that adjacent property is a one, two, or three family home, and is occupied at least in part by the owner, and is “fully residential” (that is, there’s no business on the premise), the Sidewalk Law does not apply.

The Meyer case was slightly unusual because one of the structures abutting the sidewalk was, in fact, zoned not for residential use, but for commercial use. It was used as a storage shed for the family’s belongings. The court was thus tasked with deciding what should govern here: how the property was classified under zoning laws, or alternately, how the property was actually being used. They settled on the latter, and as such, the property owners managed to escape liability.

The Meyer case is also a good example of the type of personal injury lawsuit that can pit defendants against defendants while the plaintiff sits back and watches. Here, Ms. Meyer relied on the intricacies of the Sidewalk Law to hold the City accountable for her injuries.

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Gallivan, PLLC have litigated a large number of sidewalk trip and fall cases. If you’ve been hurt in such an accident, contact our offices for information on how we can help.

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