Sidewalk Trip-and-Fall — Who’s Liable?

Although the public has a right-of-way to use a sidewalk adjacent to a homeowner’s residence, the homeowner has an obligation to maintain the sidewalk so that pedestrians using it will not be at risk.  This includes removing ice or snow within a reasonable period after a snow storm ends and repairing or replacing a broken pavement that could cause a person to trip and fall.
The question that arose in the case of Reinoso v. Heritage Warminster, SPE, LLC was whether a difference in the elevation of two sections of the pavement as little as 5/8ths of an inch could as a matter of law be too trivial, or de minimis, to make a homeowner liable where a child and her grandmother both tripped and were injured in the falls.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that whether the homeowner is guilty of negligence in not repairing such a condition is a question of fact to be resolved by a jury.  The homeowner argued that such a difference in elevations was so small that as a matter of law they could not be negligent.  The trial court agreed and ruled, “. . . the homeowner is not required to maintain a sidewalk to perfection, but only to the extent that unreasonably unsafe conditions are removed. . . .”
However, on appeal the Superior Court disagreed with the trial court and ruled that the matter must be submitted to a jury to determine whether there was negligence, although the Court agreed that homeowners are not required to remove trivial or de minimis defects.  The Court added that there is “no definite or mathematical rule” regarding the amount of a depression which is permissible.  The question, the Court ruled, is one for the jury to decide.
The lesson to be taken from this ruling is that as a homeowner, you must be alert.  If the roots of a tree growing alongside your property have caused one portion of the sidewalk to be elevated, you may want to correct the problem.  Most homeowners’ insurance policies provide a limited amount of protection; but the risk of a claim which exceeds policy limits and the enormous inconvenience of being involved in litigation are reason enough to be diligent in sidewalk maintenance.
Perhaps the best reason, however, has nothing to do with the law:  it’s just plain good-neighborly to take steps which may prevent injury.
– Ken Butera
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