More on NYC sidewalk liability

[Updated again Fri. Aug. 8] Reader Mike Allard writes, regarding our Aug. 5 item on sidewalk liability in New York: “I believe this story contains a misunderstanding of the responsibility of property owners and the sidewalks that lay before them. … ”

Continues Allard: “When I worked for a firm that owned several buildings in Manhattan, we were responsible for the care and maintenance of the sidewalks in front of the buildings. We could be ticketed and fined if the condition of the sidewalks were considered hazardous. We were responsible for their maintenance, including, but certainly not limited to, snow removal. A record of tickets would appear as a lien on a title search and clearing those up was an arduous task, as I found out firsthand. So, unless things have changed in the last five years, property owners have the right AND the responsibility for the care and maintenance of the sidewalks adjacent to their properties. Given that, it only seems reasonable that they should also bear the responsibility of any lawsuits attendant thereto. While most of our properties were in Manhattan, this responsibility was true for the buildings we owned in Queens and Brooklyn as well. I also know that when I lived and worked in Boston, property owners were responsible for the care and maintenance of their sidewalks as well.”

What struck us as extraordinary about Gotham’s latest enactment was not so much its exposing property owners to lawsuits for failing to shovel ice and snow from the adjacent sidewalks — the point raised by reader Allard — but rather the way it saddles them with liability for the mechanically unsafe condition of the sidewalk itself. The city’s thriving industry of sidewalk litigation is based to a large extent of claims over alleged slips and falls on uneven or cracked sidewalks, with no snow or ice present. These claimed “sidewalk defects” may result from the natural aging of concrete, cracking, settling and shifting, the heaving of tree roots, damage done by motorists, etc. The new bill states: “Failure to maintain such sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition shall include, but not be limited to, the negligent failure to install, construct, reconstruct, repave, repair or replace defective sidewalk flags”. Are thousands of owners of small commercial properties now required/permitted to cordon off sidewalks near their businesses, declare a construction project to be in process, and keep the sidewalk closed until they have replaced the formerly crumbling “flags” with materials and workmanship of their own selection? Wouldn’t such a step violate a bunch of existing city ordinances, or at a minimum require the obtaining of a number of city permits that might not all be forthcoming right away? We ask these questions because we genuinely don’t know the answers — maybe other readers out there can enlighten us.

More relevant links: Professional Insurance Agents Online; Gotham Gazette; Testimony of NYC Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., Nov. 12, 2002; discussion at

Updated again Fri. Aug. 8: reader Allard responds: “I did see the latest post and I must tell you that our company was responsible for repairing the sidewalk, not merely keeping it clear of debris and snow. I learned of this when we were trying to refinance the building and there was a lien on the title. The lien involved a 20 year old ticket issued immediately prior to our purchase. Our building had been ticketed because of the dangerous state of the sidewalk and repairs were mandated. Repairs that were the responsibility of the building’s owner. As we renovated the building, we also renovated the sidewalk, making the much needed improvements. The lien remained on the title, as no inspector followed up on the ticket, and, as we did not request a followup inspection, the ticket was only cleared after I retrieved copies of the same and visited the inspection offices personally.

“So, as far as I understand, a building’s owner is responsible for the care and maintenance of the sidewalks adjacent to their property. The city has the responsibility of inspecting those sidewalks, but not the responsibility for their care and maintenance. Hopefully, you’ll get someone with more specific knowledge about this, rather than the anecdotal natterings of a former employee of a Manhattan properties owner.”

We appreciate the correction. On the wider point, it still seems of significance to us that the only liability relief New York City can manage to obtain is a measure that, rather than tackling the abuses of a notoriously fraud-ridden area of litigation, merely shifts its burden to different defendants.

Comments are closed.