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Who is liable for sidewalk accident injuries?

The city, and sometimes additionally the adjacent property owner, may be generally liable for negligence in causing a dangerous and defective public sidewalk that causes personal injuries.  Others might, and times, also be liable, as for example, a hired contractor negligently constructs or makes repairs to a sidewalk resulting in injuries.


Public Entity Liability (Government, City, Municipality):

Government Employee's Negligence: A public entity (typically a city or municipality) is liable for foreseeable injuries caused by a dangerous condition on the public sidewalk negligently (unreasonably) created their employee. Government Code Section 830, 835(a) and 835.4. 

Notice of Danger: Alternatively, a public entity is liable for foreseeable injuries caused by a dangerous condition on the public sidewalk negligently (unreasonably) created by an adjacent/abutting landowner or other third party if the public entity had actual or constructive notice (knew or should have known) of the dangerous condition for a sufficient time before the injury to have taken measures to protect against the danger. See Government Code Section 830, 835(b), 835.2 and 835.4. Peters v. City and County of San Francisco (1953) 41 Cal. 2d 419, 429.

Dangerous Condition Defined: A “dangerous condition” is one that creates a substantial risk of injury when the property is used with due care in a reasonably foreseeable manner. Government Code Section 830(a).

Trivial Defects: Minor, trivial or insignificant defects are not deemed as dangerous.  Government Code Section 830(a) and 830.2.  See related article on Trivial Defect Law

Adjacent / Abutting Property Owner or Occupier Liability:

Owner Negligence: An adjacent or abutting property owner is liable for injuries caused by a dangerous condition on the public sidewalk negligently created by the owner. 

“An abutting owner has always had a duty to refrain from affirmative conduct which would render the sidewalk itself or use of the sidewalk dangerous to the public.” (Selger v. Steven Brothers, Inc. (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 1585, 1592, 1594; see also Swanberg v. O’Mectin (1984) 157 Cal.App.3d 325, 330; Lompoc Unified School Dist. v. Superior Court (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1688, 1693; Peters v. City & County of San Francisco (1953) 41 Cal.2d 419, 423.

Others (City, Third Person) Negligence - Special Ordinance Required: An adjacent or abutting property owner is not liable for injuries caused by a dangerous condition on the public sidewalk negligently created by the city or other third person unless there is an ordinance (generally a city municipal code) with clear and unambiguous language imposing liability on a property owner for sidewalk injuries.  Gonzales v. City of San Jose (2004) 125 Cal.App.4th 1127, 1139 [San Jose ordinance imposed tort liability]; Contreras v. Anderson (1997) 59 Cal.App.4th 188,195-196 [Berkeley ordinance does not impose tort liability in clear and unambiguous language]; Selger v. Steven Brothers, Inc. (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 1585, 1590.

Note: California Streets and Highways Code  5610 does not impose on owners tort liability or a duty to indemnify municipalities for pedestrian injuries, except where a property owner created the defect or exercised dominion or control over the abutting sidewalk. Williams v. Foster (1989) 216 Cal.App.3d 510, 516-517 & fn. 8; Schaefer v. Lenahan (1944)   63 Cal.App.324, 327-328, 331-332; Alpert v. Villa Romano Homeowners Assn. (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 1320, 1331-1335; Williams v. Foster (1989) 216 Cal. App. 3d 510, 515-517, 521-522; Jones v. Deeter (1984) 152 Cal.App.3d 798, 803-805; Low v. City of Sacramento (1970) 7 Cal.App.3d 826, 834; Alcarez v. Vece (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1149, 1159]; see Gonzales v. City of San Jose (2004) 125 Cal.App.4th 1127, 1137.

The lack of tort liability to property owners for injuries to sidewalk travelers unless the injuries are caused by the property owner is often referred to as the “Sidewalk Accident Decisions Doctrine.”  Contreras v. Anderson (1997) 59 Cal.App.4th 188, 195, fn. 6.

Examples of Owner Liability:

A property owner may be liable if he or she alters the sidewalk for the benefit of the owner's property. Sexton v. Brooks (1952) 39 Cal. 2d 153, 157.

A property owner may also be liable if he or she negligently damages the sidewalk. Moeller v. Fleming  (1982) 136 Cal. App. 3d 241, 245 (break in sidewalk caused by the property owner’s tree); Alpert v. Villa Romano Homeowners Association (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 1320, 1335-1336 (issue of liability created where owner planted plants and trees on both sides of the sidewalk allegedly causing a sidewalk trip hazard that injured a person).

In Jones v. Deeter (1984) 152 Cal.App.3d 798, 803, the Court similarly held that the general rule of non-liability for adjacent property owners for tortious injuries does not apply if the property owner creates the injurious sidewalk condition, for example, if the root of the adjacent property owner's tree is what caused the dangerous condition on the adjacent public sidewalk.  But in this case the owner was not liable because the tree was planted and maintained in the “parkway” by the city.

An abutting owner can be found liable for negligence in creating a special hazard on the sidewalk. 

Kopfinger v. Grand Central Pub. Market (1964) 60 Cal. 2d 852, 857 (Meat product left on the sidewalk for deliveries can create liability to the market even if caused by third persons because it was connected with the business).

Lee v. Ashizawa (1964) 60 Cal. 2d 862, 865 (Oil on sidewalk from owner’s business activities creates a triable issue for the jury).

     Compare Jamison v. Mark C. Bloome Co. (1980) 112 Cal. App. 3d 570, 577 (Property owner was not liable for oil on sidewalk caused by vandals after close of business).

Related Articles:

See Premises Liability California

See statute of limitations articles:

Government Claim Statute of Limitations California

California Statute of Limitations

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is informational, only. The subject matter and applicable law is evolving and/or constant state of change.  This article is based on California law. No legal advice is given and no attorney/client or other relationship is established or intended.  The information provided is from general sources, and I cannot represent, guarantee or warrant that the information contained in this website is accurate, current, or is appropriate for the usage of any reader. It is recommend that readers of this information consult with their own counsel prior to relying on any information on this website.

Copyright 2014
By MB Tozer Esq.

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