Slip and Fall Accidents on City Sidewalks

Pam: This is Fighting For What's Right, with personal injury attorney, Barry Doyle. Barry, I'm sure you get tons of inquiries about people who've tripped and fallen on City sidewalks. Are there any special issues involving these kinds of cases?

Barry: The most important issue that people need to be aware of, in cases involving city sidewalks, and for that matter, sidewalks involving school districts, and the county and so on and so forth, is that there's a shorter statute of limitations for local governmental entities. For private entities, the statute of limitations is two years, which means you have to file a lawsuit within two years of the date of accidents. When a local governmental entity is involved, it's a one year statute of limitations. And obviously, that's really important with these kinds of cases involving city sidewalks, because so much of this is going to be owned by a local governmental entity.

Now, above and beyond the short statute of limitations, one of the other issues that you need to be aware of is what's called the De minimis rule. And basically what the De minimis rule means, is that where a defect is small enough, it's considered to be non-actionable as a matter of law, which means that if it's below this size, there's no case there. In general, anything that's smaller than an inch and a half defect is considered to be non-actionable. Sort of the underlying philosophy of the De minimis rule is that municipalities have miles and miles of sidewalk that they have to tend to, and setting a de minimums amount of defect really kind of shields municipalities from unreasonable amounts of liability.

Now, that inch and a half is not a hard and fast rule. For example, you have a situation where somebody tripped and fell on a defect that was actually created by municipal employees. That may be a situation where, even if the defect was under that inch and a half threshold, you can still have a case. I handled a case years ago where somebody tripped and fell on a board that was nailed down to one of the bridges that cross the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. Now, that board was only an inch thick, but it was a situation where the municipality actually created the defect, so that De minimis rule didn't apply.

Above and beyond the De minimis rule, the issue of making sure that you have the proper defendant identified is going to be something that's going to be really important in cases involving sidewalks. Most of the time we assume that public sidewalks are going to be owned by the City, or the village or whoever your local governmental entity is, but that's not necessarily true, and one of the things I, as a lawyer, need to do, so is make sure that in the particular location where somebody fell, that we are identifying the owner of that exact spot. Like I said, the underlying assumption is that the City owns public sidewalks, but that's not necessarily always true.

Besides those particular issues, one of the things that you also need to show in these cases is that the municipality had notice of the defect in the sidewalk, and that can be really tricky in places like the City of Chicago where the City doesn't necessarily have an obligation to do anything to inspect or maintain sidewalks.

One of the things that I found helpful lately is actually going to Google Maps and getting the street view, and you can show that a particular defect was present for years and years, and sometimes that can be really helpful in showing that the City should've known about the presence of this defect, because it had been there for years and years and years.

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