Sidewalk fall accidents are often complex cases due to liability issues. This is especially true in large cities like Philadelphia. In addition, there is a unique body of law which often applies in sidewalk fall accident cases, the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Act). Under the Act, local government agencies (non-state agencies) may be held primarily or secondarily liable in sidewalk fall accident cases.
Government Agency Liability for Dangerous Conditions of Sidewalk
Under the Act, local agencies can be held liable for dangerous conditions of sidewalk. Section 8542(b)(7) provides:
Sidewalks.–A dangerous condition of sidewalks within the rights-of-way of streets owned by the local agency, except that the claimant to recover must establish that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred and that the local agency had actual notice or could reasonably be charged with notice under the circumstances of the dangerous condition at a sufficient time prior to the event to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition. When a local agency is liable for damages under this paragraph by reason of its power and authority to require installation and repair of sidewalks under the care, custody and control of other persons, the local agency shall be secondarily liable only and such other persons shall be primarily liable.
Government Agency – Primary Liability (Accident Happened in Front of a Government Building)
What happens if a pedestrian slips and falls on an icy patch of sidewalk in front of a government building? Is the government agency liable for the accident and injuries?
Section 8542(b)(7) clearly establishes liability for local agencies (i.e., City of Philadelphia) for dangerous conditions of sidewalk. However, Pennsylvania courts have interpreted this law to mean that the dangerous condition must originate from the sidewalk itself.
Courts have held that a local government won’t be held liable for dangerous conditions that occur on the sidewalk, like snow, ice, debris, etc. Basically, this means that local governments are generally not liable for icy/snowy conditions of sidewalk unless some defect of the sidewalk contributed to the formation of the snow and ice. Below are two examples which explain this principle of law.
Example A: A sidewalk in front of a government building in Philadelphia has large, visible cracks which cause areas of sidewalk to become loose. During snowstorms, snow falls into the large cracks. During periods of melting/refreezing, ice forms inside and outside of the cracks. Basically, these cracks cause melted snow to form into large patches of ice. A pedestrian slips and falls on one of the ice patches.
Example B: Use the same example as above, except that there are no defects in the sidewalk (i.e., no cracks). After a snowstorm, a pedestrian slips and falls on any icy part of the sidewalk.
The critical difference between these two examples is the existence of a defective condition (large cracks in the sidewalk), as discussed in example A. Because the large cracks caused the icy patches to form, the government agency would probably be liable for the pedestrian’s injuries. In example B, the agency would not be liable.
Government Agency – Secondary Liability (Accident Happened in Front of a Home or Business)
Under the Act, local government agencies can be held secondarily liable for a sidewalk fall accident that occurs in front of a private residence or public business. This is clearly laid out in the last portion of Section 8542(b)(7).
Secondary liability only kicks in after liability of the primary homeowner or business owner is established. An injured pedestrian doesn’t get to choose who is liable. Rather, the homeowner or business owner is liable first. Then, the government agency can be held liable second.
It is important to note that local government agency liability for any type of injury or accident case is restricted under the Act. There are very specific notice requirements, including a mandatory 180 day notice requirement. In addition, there are other prerequisites and limitations. For instance, an injured plaintiff may only make a claim for pain and suffering if 1. the injuries caused a permanent loss of a bodily function or permanent disfigurement/dismemberment, and 2. the medical and dental expenses exceed $1,500.
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