Sidewalk Liability

Pennsylvania law provides that property owners must keep their sidewalks in “a reasonably safe condition for travel by the public.” Whether a sidewalk is properly maintained and is safe is determined on a case‑by‑case basis, with an examination of the surrounding circumstances of each case.

In a recent case, a woman won damages against a small insurance agency after she fell, spraining her ankle, tearing her meniscus, and suffering bruises. Following a light snow, the woman had been on her way into the building to speak to one of the agency’s employees about a personal matter when she fell on an uneven portion of the sidewalk.

On appeal from a jury’s award of damages to the injured woman, the agency claimed that the defect in the sidewalk was “trivial” and that the injured woman was thoroughly familiar with the condition of the sidewalk because she lived in the neighborhood and regularly walked past the agency.

The appeals court recognized that the law imposes liability on property owners to maintain their sidewalks but does not create liability for the “elevations, depressions or irregularities” that are trivial. No “definite or mathematical rules” define what is trivial; it is decided on the facts of each case. Finding that a defect of only two inches can be unreasonably dangerous, the appeals court upheld the jury’s verdict. The court also noted that a pedestrian’s knowledge of an area of a sidewalk does not excuse an owner’s failure to maintain it. Pedestrians are not responsible for “keeping their vision continually fixed on the ground” in front of them, although they are responsible for using reasonable care. A pedestrian who is familiar with a bad stretch of sidewalk can be found contributorily negligent by a jury, barring some or all of the pedestrian’s entitlement to damages.

If you own a sidewalk, Pennsylvania law requires that you keep it safe for pedestrian traffic. Repair defects promptly, and post clear warning signs of dangerous conditions pending the completion of repairs. When walking on a sidewalk, assume that you have a reasonable obligation to look out for your own safety. Property owners are not strictly liable to pedestrians; instead, they are responsible only for conditions that are carelessly dangerous.

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