If a pedestrian trips and falls on a public sidewalk, who is liable? Generally, in Florida, cities and municipalities are tasked with the upkeep of sidewalks, and could thus be held liable in an injury case related to a trip and fall incident.
Liability Altered by Local Ordinance
Some municipal and local ordinances impose the burden of maintaining sidewalks in a safe condition and liability for injuries sustained on sidewalk on adjacent property owners, while others put the onus of maintenance and repair on the owners but are silent on civil liability. In the case of Schupbach v. City of Sarasota, the Florida Appellate Court interpreted the law to mean that a private property owner is not liable for accidents due to a dangerous public sidewalk shared with the owner unless the city passes an ordinance that creates a private right of action against property owners for poorly maintaining a public sidewalk. In fact many municipalities have ordinances like the one in Sarasota. In the City of Sunrise, it is the duty of property owners to maintain sidewalks that abut their property, and that property owners are responsible for replacing sidewalks that cannot be repaired. In this city, the ordinance is silent as to liability. This is similar for the ordinances in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami Beach. Thus, the intent to create civil liability much be clear and concise.
Liability Altered by Exercise of Control
If, however, the abutting landowner makes an alteration to the sidewalk specially benefiting the owner, the alteration will create a duty to protect pedestrians from related dangerous conditions. Further, an abutting landowner who exercises control over the sidewalk may be held liable for any resulting injury. Cook v. Bay Area Renaissance Festival of Largo, Inc., 164 So.3d 120 (2015). Thus, if a landowner does something to exercise control over the sidewalk, the landowner may be held liable for injuries sustained on the sidewalk, even if the local ordinance would otherwise absolve the owner of liability. The following have been considered sufficient exertion of control over a sidewalk:
- installing a ramp on the edge of the sidewalk;
- mowing and watering grass strip between sidewalk and street;
- planting a tree; and
- attempting to fix a hole, left when city removed tree that had fallen, by filling hole with dirt and covering it with sod.
Liability through Lease
Lastly, liability imposed on owners of property abutting the sidewalk may be transferred to occupants of the property through the lease. Lease terms typically impose on the lessee the duty to maintain the sidewalk and contain indemnity provisions requiring the lessee to defend and indemnify the owner for injuries on sidewalks abutting the property.
Property owners and occupants should be clear as to their respective responsibility for the condition of sidewalks adjacent to their property. They should also be vigilant of whether what they do on their property impacts the sidewalk. For instance, they should keep an eye on the root growth of a tree on their property which might cause a tripping hazard on the sidewalk. Owners and occupants should also explore the implication of extending private use of sidewalks, such as placing a movable planter, a bench or café seating.