Sidle Your City’s Sidewalks

Author: Patrick J. Babin

The Supreme Court of Louisiana heard a personal injury matter to determine whether the Village of Moreauville kept its sidewalk in a safe condition.  The specific issue in dispute was whether a 1.5 inch variation in height of sidewalk panels created an unreasonable risk of harm for a pedestrian.

In April 2008, Plaintiff and a friend were walking from a funeral to Plaintiff’s home.  While walking, plaintiff noticed one panel of the sidewalk sloped down and the adjacent panel sloped up and began walking this portion of the sidewalk.  However, plaintiff did not see a 1.5 inch ledge at the top of the upward slope. She fell and broke her arm.

Plaintiff sued Moreauville for damages.  The matter went to trial and after a bench trial, the court found Moreauville 100% at fault and awarded damages in the amount of $349,214.39.  At trial, plaintiff’s expert testified that the kedge was a tripping hazard because of the vertical change in elevation exceeding one-half of an inch.  The expert further testified that the decline and incline immediately preceding the ledge made the ledge even more dangerous.  Defendant’s expert testified that the sidewalk’s condition was not unreasonably dangerous.  Defendant’s expert testified that the sidewalk’s condition was not unreasonably dangerous because plaintiff was aware of the poor condition of the sidewalk, plaintiff acknowledged the sidewalk’s condition before she reached it, and safely walked down the initial decline of the sidewalk.

On appeal, the three-judge panel affirmed in part and reversed in part.  The court of appeal affirmed the judge’s ruling that the height difference created an unreasonable risk of harm, but it amended the judge’s liability ruling to attribute 10% of the fault to Plaintiff.

 The Supreme Court of Louisiana found that trial judge applied incorrect law.  Specifically, the trial judge did not take into account how much it would cost Moreauville to repair its sidewalks.  At trial, plaintiff’s expert testified that it would cost between $500.00 and $600.00 dollars to repair the deficient sidewalk at issue and there were a substantial number of sidewalks in Moreauville with the same type of height difference deficiency.  The Supreme Court reasoned that the cost to Moreauville to fix sidewalk deficiencies would be substantial.

The Supreme Court considered the utility of the sidewalk versus the cost of repair to Moreauville.  Although the utility of the sidewalk was high, it would be economically infeasible to require municipalities to correct all the sidewalk deviations of 1.5 inches or more.  The Supreme Court noted that the risk of harm created by the 1.5 inch difference was low and the deficiency was visible.  The Court did not find that the sidewalk condition was unreasonable risk of harm and the decisions of the court of appeal and trial judge were overturned.  Judgment was entered in favor of Moreauville, dismissing Plaintiff’s suit.

Plaintiff v. Village of Moreauville, —So.3d —, 2011-898 (La. 1/24/12).