The slips, trips and falls that can happen on municipal-owned property can be a major expense for cities and towns, creating a need for staff to adopt risk management strategies proactively so they can reduce their liability exposure and prevent claims.
To help with these dangers, the South Carolina Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund provides general liability coverage for cities and towns to cover public works liability claims. In the last year, a top cause of liability claims for public works and utilities have been trips and falls. These injuries typically result from uneven or damaged sidewalks, walkways or misplaced utility box covers that create a trip hazard. Since 2022, SCMIRF has received reports of more than 75 slips, trips and falls, with a projected cost of $1.6 million.
Sidewalks are essential for pedestrian safety in a municipality and provide a sense of community. Even so, city staff often overlook sidewalks for regular maintenance, which often leads to substantial claims.
The most common types of slips or trips by pedestrians on public streets and sidewalks occur on uneven, broken and cracked sidewalks. Cities should be aware of what actions they can take that cause liability, such as the design or construction they undertake, or their failure to inspect and maintain sidewalks and other public areas designed for pedestrian use.
Reporting and inspection
Staying on top of every piece of sidewalk throughout the city can be daunting. Staff can consider establishing resident and employee reporting systems, so that potential issues can be reported and corrected as soon as possible. Some SCMIRF members have online platforms or mobile apps available to residents for reporting concerns. If the municipality doesn’t have a reporting system, then routine, documented inspections will help identify potential hazards so that the appropriate department can eliminate or reduce the hazard. Maintaining documentation of the inspections and the date of the repair is key when addressing allegations of a municipality being negligent.
Here are tips for helping municipal property reduce its walking hazards:
- Look for cracks, broken pavement, settled surfaces that create areas of unevenness, and make sure they are smooth and free of damage.
- Ensure drainage systems are working properly to alleviate standing water in walkways.
- Provide lightning in areas that have more uneven surfaces if pedestrians use the walkway after sunset.
- Make sure the parking lot is well-lit.
- Make sure surfaces are smooth and regular with no potholes.
SCMIRF receives reports of claims involving people falling into or tripping over meter boxes that are missing the cover. These types of losses usually result in severe injuries to the feet or lower leg. Regular, documented inspection of utility boxes can help reduce liability for a municipality or public utility. Also, training utility workers to look for and repair or replace damaged utility box covers while they are in the field can help keep ground utility boxes in good repair and free of hazards.
Notice and negligence
When a city is placed on notice of an issue or should have known about a potential problem, and if the concern then remains unaddressed, this increases liability and increases the chances of an injured claimant prevailing in filing a claim after being injured.
A municipality is only liable for a slip, trip or fall loss on a street or sidewalk if it is found to be negligent, and then if that negligence caused the incident.
Keep in mind that liability does not automatically follow ownership, and municipalities can be held liable for injuries caused by sidewalks that are owned by other entities if any degree of control over the sidewalk has been exercised. Read this article on municipal liability for non-owned sidewalks to learn more.
Equipment used to grind uneven concrete such as a scarifier can help keep sidewalks in good condition. SCMIRF members may apply for reimbursement of up to 50% of the cost of the equipment purchased, not to exceed a maximum benefit of $4,000 per member per year. SCMIRF has allocated a budget of $100,000 for this reimbursement in the 2023 calendar year. The funds are available on a first-come, first-served basis until depleted.
For questions or additional information on preventing slips, trips and falls, contact John Ciesielski, loss control consultant, at 803.354.4752 or email@example.com; or Bethany Pendley, loss control manager, at 803.933.1210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.