When an accident occurs outside a business on a walkway, it can be initially difficult to tell who is responsible for a walkway when there are hazards. A recent Appeals Court case, Halbach v. Normandy (15-P-1500), discusses how liability is determined when the sidewalk right outside a business actually belongs to the city or another property owner. In this case, the injured man suffered serious injuries after he fell on uneven pavement outside a parking garage. The sidewalk was public property. The building was maintained by a separate group, which the injured man alleged was responsible for repairing the sidewalk or warning pedestrians of any hazard.
The managing company moved to dismiss, and the trial court granted it. To prove negligence occurred, one must show that a duty existed under the law. Under premises liability case law, the owner or manager of a business must use reasonable care to protect guests from harm. However, the scope of the duty created only extends to areas for which the business is actually responsible. The lower court ruled in this case that the managing company did not owe a duty to the injured pedestrian. The appellate court looked at whether the lower court was correct in its determination and also addressed whether the scope of the duty should be extended.
The injured pedestrian tripped and fell near a garage. The pavement was uneven on the sidewalk owned by the city, which was adjacent to the garage maintained by the defendants. After the accident, the managing company hired someone to grind down the uneven pavement. The injured pedestrian initially argued that the managing company exercised control over the sidewalk, and because of this control, it owed a duty to the injured party. The Appeals Court pointed out that the duties of an owner of property abutting a sidewalk or another public way are limited. Case law states that an owner cannot create a hazardous condition that could interfere with travel but does not have an affirmative duty to keep a public sidewalk clear.
The injured plaintiff tried to point to the management company’s actions after the accident. Even though it is well-established case law that post-accident actions do not prove liability, they can be used as evidence of control. The appellate court acknowledged that a duty of care can exist for an owner or manager when they have a right to control the land. However, under these circumstances, the appellate court felt the manager and the owner merely dealt with property that abutted the sidewalk and did not maintain any right to control. The court felt that this situation placed the liability for the resulting damages on the city. The court affirmed and also issued a concurring opinion. The concurrence pointed to case law that shows “the world principally looks to private property owners to make sure the sidewalks bordering their property are safe.” The concurrence acknowledged the Supreme Court must decide whether or not to expand the scope of the duty, but it also noted that the current available remedy may be insufficient to truly make an injured party whole.
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