Sudden Sidewalk Sensation
It’s a sudden sensation that has been experienced by almost all of us. We are walking along a sidewalk, minding our own business, when suddenly something catches our toe and we stumble, nearly falling. The pavement was uneven or broken and caused us to trip. Fortunately, we didn’t fall, and continue on our way with no injury other than a suddenly increased heartbeat. Sadly, many people fall and suffer serious injuries due to broken sidewalks every year.
Sidewalks can become uneven or broken for many different reasons. Most commonly, a tree planted in the tree box (the portion of lawn between the sidewalk and the curb) grows large enough that its roots start to displace the pavement. When this happens, a section of the sidewalk is forced up at an angle, causing a protrusion. Sidewalks can also become hazardous when a misdirected drain or other water source causes erosion that either raises, lowers, or eats away at the otherwise-flat surface. In other instances, simple time and inattention cause gradual damage that can result in a trip and fall hazard. Finally, thin pavement can sustain cracks from repeated heavy vehicle traffic.
These risks can be mitigated by installing sidewalks that are at least four inches in poured concrete depth. With four inches of pavement, it is more difficult for tree roots or other extrusions to displace the slab, and there is less likelihood of serious cracking. However, not all sidewalks are built to this standard.
Businesses and homeowners may imagine that they are not responsible for injuries or damages incurred as a result of a problem with their sidewalks. After all, isn’t it a person’s job to watch where they are going? As natural as this intuition may seem, it’s not necessarily the case. In the District of Columbia, any deviation, crack, or displacement causing a lip or discontinuity more than two inches in height is generally accepted to be a negligent condition, and anyone with such a condition who fails to remedy it can be held liable for injuries sustained when someone trips over it.
The burden this places on businesses and homeowners has led to some debate that the provision is cruel or unreasonable, but correcting such conditions is almost always remarkably straightforward and less expensive than expected. In many instances, a contractor can simply grind down the protruding lip, forming a smooth transition across the walkway. In others, the displacement is the result of natural forces, and the adjoining paved regions can be elevated by pumping fluids into space. In either case, courts and juries have held a real responsibility that can be enforced.
Those who fall and are injured as a result of uneven pavement or a broken sidewalk should immediately take photographs of the area to preserve evidence while contacting a personal injury attorney to discuss the best path forward. Most injury-causing accidents do not occur in extreme circumstances, so it is possible to determine negligence or some other factor as the primary causative agent. Cohen & Cohen