Sidewalks: Keeping Your Liability off the Streets

By: Collin Vincent

It’s an all too familiar story: a store customer slips on spilled liquid in an aisle, is injured in the fall, and sues the store.  Whether the customer can hold the store responsible depends on a variety of specific facts, including whether the store knew or should have known about the spilled liquid before the customer fell, and whether the store took steps to protect customers from potential falls.  In the legal realm, this is called “premises liability” – meaning a property owner can be held responsible for injuries sustained by guests, invitees, and, sometimes, even trespassers.

For community associations, premises liability is a very real concern.  If an owner, tenant, guest, employee, or even a stranger falls and is injured on common area property, the association can be held legally and financially responsible.  Associations do generally have insurance to cover this type of liability, but prevention through proper maintenance is a better practice.

An important and often overlooked aspect of association property is sidewalks.  Nearly every community association has at least some sidewalks, either as a common element or as a public right-of-way abutting the property.  When an association sidewalk is common area, the association is often responsible for maintenance and repair of the sidewalk.  Associations should take care to remove excess debris, leaves, snow, ice, and anything else that can cause a person to slip and fall or obscure a tripping hazard.  In addition, the association should repair cracks and other damage to the sidewalks to protect pedestrians.  Living in the Northwest, tree roots are a primary source of sidewalk damage, and associations should address these issues early to avoid pedestrian injuries and larger repair bills in the future.

In the vast majority of cities and towns in the Pacific Northwest, including its two largest cities, Seattle and Portland, property owners are also responsible for maintaining part of the public right-of-way next to their property, including the sidewalk.  See, for example, Seattle Municipal Code Title 15.72 and Portland City Code Chapter 17.28.  In both municipalities, city inspectors will inspect sidewalks for tripping and other safety hazards to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.  If the inspector determines repairs are needed, the property owner will receive a notice to repair and will have a certain amount of time to comply.  Among the conditions inspectors will look for in evaluating sidewalks are the following:

If left unrepaired, the city may make the necessary repairs and bill the owner.  The city can also take legal action to compel an owner to make repairs.

Simply put, community associations should take a proactive approach when it comes to sidewalk maintenance, and should include all public right-of-way sidewalks in its regular inspection schedule.