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Why Sidewalk Falls Don't Lead to Windfalls

You won’t win a lot of money if you sue — that’s even if you do prevail in court. And the city has little financial incentive to change its policies.

 

Five years ago, Linda Meadows was walking around a Serra Mesa office park during a business trip to San Diego. She remembers looking for a crosswalk and then noticing a big tree.

“One minute I was standing,” Meadows said this week. “The next minute I was on my face.”

Meadows tripped over a tree root that had raised a 1 1/2-inch lip in the middle of the sidewalk. She needed six surgeries to fix injuries to her hip, back, knee, foot, elbow and face. The fall left her unable to work and laid her up on the couch for months. At the time, Meadows didn’t have health insurance.

Meadows filed a lawsuit against the city over the dangerous sidewalk condition, and almost two years after her accident, she received a $200,000 settlement.

That makes Meadows a relative rarity among those who sue the city over sidewalk falls. Despite the shoddy condition of San Diego’s sidewalks and the illogical policies that govern sidewalk repairs and liabilities, payouts are often paltry — if the plaintiff wins at all.

From 2008 to 2012, the city paid out an average of $355,000 a year in sidewalk legal claims. Attorneys say sidewalk trip-and-fall cases are time-consuming and it’s hard to prove the city’s at fault. Meadows’ $200,000 payout is the most the city spent on a single case from 2008 to 2012.

Other stories of those who have risked life and limb walking around San Diego sound similarly harrowing, especially for the elderly.

A 75-year-old man who caught his foot in a cracked sidewalk downtown on the way back from the drug store and required a steel plate with five screws in his left arm. A grandparent fell on a Midtown sidewalk while carrying her granddaughter.

One woman fell face first and then slid after tripping over a downtown sidewalk, a witness said. She severely injured her lower back and groin.

“I hope nobody else ever has to go through this,” Meadows said. “It was horrible.”

Here are three things you should know about suing the city over a sidewalk fall.

You’re Not Going to Get Rich

The city’s payouts for these injuries don’t amount to much. The average from 2008 to 2012 totaled about $14,000. Just four people received six-figure amounts from the city. One person who fell in University Heights in 2010 got $25.

You’re Probably Not Going to Win

Attorneys who won cases or settlements from the city in sidewalk lawsuits said their victories were more exception than rule.

“Unless you’re a punk out of school and trying to be Perry Mason, you don’t want to screw with that kind of stuff,” said Allan Field, an attorney who won a $48,000 settlement from the city after a sidewalk defect caused his client’s motorized scooter to fall on top of her.

Factors like footwear, attentiveness and how a victim would perform on the witness stand come into play. The cases also often require photographs and other documentation of deep cracks in the sidewalk, which could call for expensive private investigators and witness depositions. Most importantly, a lawyer has to show the city knew or should have known about the sidewalk problem before the person fell.

“It might be thousands of people that have fallen, but how do I prove that?” said attorney Darren Pirozzi, who won a $150,000 settlement for a client in 2011.

Pirozzi was lucky. He deposed a witness who not only saw his client trip, but had watched about 100 other people fall over the same section of the sidewalk over a seven-month period. The witness had made numerous calls to the city and the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a nonprofit in charge of maintenance for the area, to report the problem. But it wasn’t fixed before his client stumbled.

Even then, Pirozzi had a fight on his hands. The suit took up three volumes of court documents before it was resolved, mushrooming into a sprawling case involving the city, the partnership, the business in front of the broken sidewalk and San Diego Gas & Electric because of a nearby utility box.

The city fights hard against these claims in court. It urges the court to toss the cases by arguing the sidewalk defects were insignificant and the city didn’t know about them. Some payouts between 2008 and 2012 came three years after the sidewalk slip.

There’s No Real Incentive for the City to Change

In December, a man paralyzed by a falling palm tree in Mission Hills won a $7.6 million judgment against the city. Mayor Bob Filner’s proposed budget for next year includes an additional $500,000 for tree trimming.

The city doesn’t seem to have the same financial incentive to change its sidewalk policies.

Annual sidewalk trip-and-fall payouts of $355,000 don’t put much of a dent in the city’s legal reserve. It’s also far less than the money it takes to actually repair many busted sidewalks. It costs $2,200 to fix one tree root-damaged sidewalk section.

The city already has a cheaper option. It often throws down asphalt over dangerous sidewalk sections. The result is hardly a work of art. But it helps reduce the chances someone falls and sues.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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