Brooklyn Woman Sues Former NYC Mayor, City After Tripping on Sidewalk Outside Former Mayor’s House
Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was recently hit with a personal injury lawsuit after a woman tripped on the sidewalk outside his home. The Brooklyn woman claims the sidewalk was improperly maintained and named the former Mayor as well as the City of New York in her lawsuit, along with de Blasio’s wife and a few of their neighbors.
The plaintiff alleges she tripped after her foot got caught in a one-inch hole in front of de Blasio’s Park Slope property. Per the complaint, she suffered “serious injuries” in the subsequent tumble, including a tear to her meniscus and having four dental crowns knocked out of her mouth. She asserts that the property owners had “actual and constructive knowledge” of “the danger” of the sidewalk, having previously filed formal complaints with the city about the “elevated and uneven” path.
The lawsuit raises an interesting legal question: Is the former mayor (and/or his wife and neighbors) personally liable for a poorly-maintained sidewalk outside his home? Liability for sidewalk accidents is more complex than other forms of “premises liability,” especially in New York City. If you slip and fall in a grocery store, liability is simple: Is it the store’s fault? If they knew or should have known about whatever caused you to fall (like a wet floor), then the store is liable. It’s their property.
When someone trips on a sidewalk, however, the issue is a bit more nuanced. In some jurisdictions, sidewalks are owned and controlled by whoever owns the property adjacent to the sidewalk. If someone trips on poorly-maintained pavement, the nearest property owner is to blame. In other jurisdictions, sidewalks and pavement are generally under the purview of the municipality. The standards for bringing a claim against a private individual or business tend to be very different from bringing a claim against a government entity.
The current sidewalk rule in New York City was established relatively recently. Prior to 2003, the city was primarily responsible for maintaining all sidewalks. If you tripped on a faulty sidewalk, you had to deal with a lawsuit against the municipality.
In 2003, the City enacted Administrative Code § 7-210, commonly called the Sidewalk Law. Section 7-210 explicitly shifted the responsibility to nearby property owners: “It shall be the duty of the owner of real property abutting any sidewalk, including, but not limited to, the intersection quadrant for corner property, to maintain such sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition.” The law goes on to establish liability for property owners whose failure to maintain their sidewalks causes personal injury.
The Sidewalk Law, however, has significant exceptions. Owner-occupied residences of one-, two-, or three-family homes are exempt from the rule. The rule was meant to impose the costs of sidewalk maintenance and potential liability on commercial real estate owners and landlords, rather than to burden individual homeowners. That means the city takes responsibility for maintaining the sidewalks in residential neighborhoods, and homeowners need not fear liability from people who trip over cracks in the pavement outside their houses.
Back to the former mayor. Per the Sidewalk Law, it would seem NYC is the proper target for the woman’s lawsuit. Under most circumstances, however, suing the city is more challenging than suing an individual. New York City sidewalk trip and fall lawyer Leandros A. Vrionedes explains some of the more important distinctions. “One important difference,” says Vrionedes, “is that you only have one year to file a lawsuit against the City, as opposed to three years to file suit against a private person.” Even more importantly, Vrionedes adds, “the law requires you to notify the City of any potential claim within 90 days of the incident.” This notice is intended to provide the City with the opportunity to investigate and settle the claim without a lawsuit having to be filed. “Missing this notice deadline can be fatal to your case,” says Vrionedes, “which is why it is critical to retain an attorney who is well-versed in sidewalk trip and fall cases.”
Attorney Vrionedes points out that a key issue in a sidewalk trip and fall case is whether the responsible party, in this case the City, had actual or constructive notice of the hazard yet failed to fix it in a reasonable time. Many municipalities in New York additionally have laws requiring prior written notice before the town or village can be held liable. Here, if formal complaints were indeed lodged with the City as the lawsuit alleges, those complaints should be enough to put the City on notice.
It's unclear why the plaintiff in this case is suing the property owners; if the property is an owner-occupied one, two or three-family home, then the City is liable and not de Blasio, his wife, or their neighbors. De Blasio’s status as a former city employee shouldn’t change the liability analysis either. Even if he was still the mayor, he would be living at Gracie Mansion, and the Sidewalk Law makes the City responsible for maintaining the sidewalks abutting municipal property.
Given the complexity of sidewalk premises liability in New York, the plaintiff in this case might be suing both de Blasio and the city to cover all her bases, even though both entities would not be liable under the Sidewalk Law. It remains to be seen whether her claims will hold up in court against any named party.