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Don’t Get Tripped Up on Sidewalk Issues

Like other types of municipal infrastructure, sidewalks tend to attract little notice, as long as nothing is wrong with them. Public works officials often see these concrete slabs differently. Any jagged or dislodged piece of sidewalk is a source of danger, something that can trip pedestrians or even cause injury, unless the sidewalk receives maintenance work.

Slips, trips and falls are some of the costliest tort liability insurance claims that cities and towns face, but there are proactive steps that can help reduce these claims.

When does the city have liability?
If the city has volunteered to repair or maintain the road or sidewalk, it may have assumed liability. If someone reports a sidewalk problem to a city that doesn’t own or maintain it, the city may have a duty to inform the owner, which can be either the state or the county government.

Cities should maintain a form letter for reporting sidewalk problems to other entities, and to document that any repairs the city makes to a sidewalk did not create liability. The letter should contain several points:
  • A description of the problem — trip hazards, potholes, downed trees or other issues.
  • Location details — street names, addresses and other descriptions.
  • A statement that describes the property owner’s legal responsibility for the maintenance of the area and any actions needed to ensure public safety.
  • An indication that the city’s assistance on the property is a one-time event, and so the city does not accept ongoing liability. For example: “Please note that after repairs are made, the city does not intend to continue maintenance on this segment of the property owner’s roadway/sidewalk.” 
Maintenance issues that can lead to claims
Dangerous sidewalk issues can be as simple as a drainage washout that has deposited sand or debris on the sidewalk, or broken or missing meter covers — a frequent source of trip-and-fall claims. Trees can present a more substantial challenge, since root growth under the sidewalk can push it up, creating the uneven slabs that can trip up passersby.

A sidewalk buckled by tree growth has several solutions. In a mild case with limited slab displacement, the city could buy or rent a scarifier to grind down the uneven surfaces. In a more serious case, workers can cut out the problematic parts of the sidewalk with a wet saw, remove the root structure, and replace the sidewalk. Members of the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund have access to a grant that reimburses up to half the cost of buying or renting scarifiers, up to $4,000, available on a first-come, first-served basis.

When making repairs, workers should use barricades and signage to close the section of sidewalk to foot traffic. Barricading is also advisable in situations where the tripping hazard cannot be fixed immediately. 

Proactive steps
Since sidewalks often attract little attention, festering maintenance problems often go unnoticed as well. Staying on top of potential issues means having a regular inspection process of city sidewalks, and dedicated funding in the budget for sidewalk repairs. Many cities have a formalized process for accepting reports of maintenance issues including sidewalk problems. Municipal apps, for example, often allow users to give the location and a photo of the issue. 

The best way to prevent buckling from tree roots is to have the right kind of trees — ones with roots that grow downward — around the sidewalk in the first place. The SC Department of Transportation offers a list, “Suggestions for Street Trees & Sidewalk Plantings,” ranging from Red Maples to Willow Oaks and Cabbage Palmettos.  

For questions about sidewalk-related risk management, contact John Ciesielski, loss control consultant, at