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Slipping, Tripping, or Falling on a Public Sidewalk

Everyone knows walking is good for you. Walking helps keep your heart healthy, helps keep off excess weight, and can be a great way to see new sights in your neighborhood that you miss when you’re driving and focused on the road. More people these days sit for most of the day at work, and public health officials and urban planners are constantly talking about ways to design cities in a way that encourages more walking.

You decide that walking more sounds like a great idea, so you vow to use your car less often and to hoof it to run errands to get some more exercise. You set out from your house or apartment for an evening stroll with your spouse, and you’re feeling good about hitting the sidewalks — until you stumble into a gaping hole in the pavement that you didn’t see in the dark. You fall pretty hard, and end up with a broken leg and other injuries. A passerby calls 911, and paramedics confirm that you have a fracture.

You get rushed to the emergency room, x-rayed, and have your leg set in a cast that’s going to impair a lot of your daily functions — including your ability to do your job — until it heals. So now you’re out of work for the time being and worried about the medical bills that are going to start coming in the mail. Your family lives paycheck to paycheck, and you can’t afford unpaid time off, let alone significant extra expenses.

When you’re injured on a public sidewalk in Illinois, you may have some legal recourse. The state’s Premises Liability Act, 740 ILCS 130, allows you to make a claim for compensation when your injuries are the result of negligence by the person, company, or other entity responsible for maintaining the sidewalk. But there are some limitations to your ability to recover depending upon the circumstances of your accident.

Duty of Care

The basic idea behind the Premises Liability Act is that property owners are responsible to maintain their property in a way that’s reasonable, and in most circumstances when people come onto their property they owe those people a duty of care to not have hazards on the property that might hurt someone, and that should be reasonable foreseeable might cause injury. The law says that when the property owner or occupier — basically whoever is response to keep up maintenance — knows a hazard exists, they should either fix it or warn you about it. If they fail to do that, they may be negligent and you may be able to get compensation for your injuries and other damages.

There are some exceptions. A property owner or occupier won’t be responsible for your injuries when:

  • They don’t know about the danger and aren’t reasonably expected to have foreseen it
  • You know about the danger
  • The danger was open and obvious
  • The danger is something you could reasonably be expected to discover
  • The danger is created by your own misuse of the premises

Municipal Tort Immunity

Public sidewalks are city property, and claims against city governments can be challenging to pursue in Illinois because of the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10. This statute generally protects municipal governments and their employees from lawsuits such as those for a personal injury caused by a defect in a public sidewalk, except under some fairly specific circumstances.

To be successful in a claim against a city government such as that of Chicago or one of the surrounding suburbs, you have to be able to prove that the city had notice of the problem with the sidewalk. Notice can be actual, meaning people made complaints to the city about the gaping hole you fell into. Notice also can be constructive, meaning the defect has been there long enough that the city should have known about it. If the gaping hole had been there for weeks or months, the city may be considered to have constructive notice of the problem.

Tort immunity is a complex legal idea and you’re going to need the help of an experienced premises liability attorney to make a claim for compensation involving an injury caused by a problem with a public sidewalk. You also may need the help of expert witnesses to testify about the nature of the defect, that the city should have known about the defect, and that the defect could have caused the type of injuries you suffered. Expert witnesses can be costly, and a personal injury lawyer can help you determine whether you have a sufficient claim to make hiring experts worthwhile.

The De Minimis Rule

Another hurdle in trying to pursue sidewalk claims is known as the de minimis rule. This rule comes out from a history of court decisions, and essentially says that some defects are too minor to allow for a claim. Generally, a sidewalk being merely uneven or cracked is insufficient to allow a successful claim for compensation of injuries. There has to be some kind of major problem, such as the gaping hole in the scenario above.

Open and Obvious Hazards

A third problem that injured people face when trying to make claims involving public sidewalks is the open and obvious hazards doctrine. If you’ve cleared the other two hurdles and have been able to show that the city had actual or constructive notice of the gaping hole, and that the gaping hole was big enough to overcome the de minimis rule, then the open and obvious doctrine turns around and allows the city to say in its defense, “The hole was big enough that you should have seen it and not fallen.” The basic idea is that you bear some responsibility to be aware of your own surroundings and exercise care for your own safety.

You may be able to overcome the idea that the gaping hole was an open and obvious danger if conditions were such that you couldn’t reasonably have been expected to see it — it was nighttime and the sidewalk was unlit, for example.

There’s also an exception to the open and obvious doctrine when you could reasonably be expected to be distracted from the gaping hole or to forget about it. If you’re walking, see the hole, intend to step around it, but you’re distracted when someone yells “Fire!” across the street and your attention is shifted toward a restaurant where smoke is pouring out. While your attention is on the burning building, you step into the hole and are injured. However, Illinois courts have said you lose the ability to claim a distraction when you’re just not paying attention to your surroundings.

Making a Premises Liability Claim

If you were injured by a hazard on a public sidewalk, you may have a lot of questions about whether someone else should be responsible for paying your medical bills and other costs, and how to make a claim. A qualified personal injury attorney can help you understand your options and make informed decisions about whether to proceed with a claim, and explain the challenges you may face in trying to make a claim against a local government.

If you’re able to overcome all of the hurdles and are successful in a premises liability claim, you may be able to recover compensation for your medical costs, lost wages, disability and disfigurement, pain and suffering, and loss of normal life. A Chicago personal injury attorney with experience handling premises liability claims can discuss with you what forms of compensation might be available in your case, and negotiate with the property owner or insurance company to get you a fair settlement. If no settlement can be reached, your attorney can help you decide if you want to file a lawsuit and have a jury decide your claim.