Who’s Responsible for the Sidewalk in Front of a House?

Anyone who walks along tree-lined streets knows that tree roots often cause cracks or upheavals in sidewalks. But who’s responsible for the damage they cause when a pedestrian trips over them?

Abutting owner has no duty for injuries. Although the responsibility for maintaining public sidewalks rests with the abutting owner, the owner ordinarily isn’t liable to third parties for injuries caused by the sidewalk’s condition. See Williams v Foster (1989) 216 CA3d 510, 522 (property owner not liable to public merely for failing to maintain public sidewalk). Generally, “a defendant cannot be held liable for the defective or dangerous condition of property which it does not own, possess, or control.” Contreras v Anderson (1997) 59 CA4th 188, 197. However, a city may adopt and enforce an ordinance that makes abutting owners liable for injuries caused by sidewalk hazards. Gonzales v City of San Jose (2004) 125 CA4th 1127.

Abutting owner has a duty to maintain and repair. The duty of the abutting property owner under Str & H C §5610 is limited to performing or paying for the repairs and maintenance of a public sidewalk. The statutory duty to repair and maintain a public sidewalk is owed to the government, not to pedestrians. Contreras, 59 CA4th 188.

Abutting owner’s negligence may result in liability. Under the “sidewalk accident decisions” doctrine, liability may be found when injury is caused by a property owner’s negligence or nuisance other than mere failure to maintain and repair. See Jones v Deeter (1984) 152 CA3d 798, 803. In Alpert v Villa Romano Homeowners Ass’n (2000) 81 CA4th 1320,  the homeowners’ association (HOA) was found to have owed a duty to warn pedestrians or repair a defect in the sidewalk caused by the roots of a tree planted and watered by an HOA employee. A landowner or possessor of land also has a duty to take reasonable measures to protect persons from dangerous conditions on adjoining land when the landowner exercises possession or control over that adjacent land. 81 CA4th at 1334; Jones v Deeter, supra.

So, abutting homeowners may be off the hook for the injuries of a tripped pedestrian (check local ordinances to be sure), unless the homeowners’ own negligence or nuisance was a contributing factor in the fall.

Tree-related legal issues arise more often than many would think, so be prepared for these cases with CEB’s Neighbor Disputes: Law and Litigation, chap 4.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

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