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Are Cities Responsible When Distracted Pedestrians Are Injured by Falling on Poorly Maintained Sidewalks?

It is common for public sidewalks to fall into disrepair, especially when they are located near large trees with extensive root systems. This can cause the walkways to crack, buckle, become uneven, and otherwise pose a danger to pedestrians. In the case of Bruns v. City of Centralia,the Illinois Appellate Court considers whether municipalities are responsible for injuries citizens sustain when they are distracted and fall on a poorly maintained sidewalk.

The Facts

On March 27, 2012, 80-year-old Virginia Bruns arrived at an eye clinic in Centralia, Illinois, for a scheduled appointment. She had been a patient at the clinic for approximately three months and sought treatment for eye problems that included irritation, pain, and blurry vision. As she approached the clinic, her attention was on the steps and the door she would use to enter the building. Because she was not focusing on the ground, Ms. Bruns failed to notice that a section of the public sidewalk was raised approximately three inches above the adjacent slab and nearby grass. She stubbed her right foot on the elevated section of sidewalk and fell, severely injuring her arm and shoulder.

This particular section of sidewalk had been lifted by the roots of an adjacent tree. Although Ms. Bruns had encountered the elevated sidewalk on previous visits to the clinic, and had even referred to it as “an accident waiting to happen,” she failed to notice it the day she was injured and did not recall its existence as she approached the clinic.

At least a year prior to Ms. Bruns’s fall, the clinic had contacted the City to make the municipality aware of the problematic sidewalk and report that a person had tripped. The clinic also offered to remove the tree at its own expense. However, the City declined.

Seeking damages, Ms. Bruns filed a lawsuit against the City of Centralia in which she alleged that the City had been negligent (careless) in its sidewalk maintenance.

The Rule of Open and Obvious Dangers and the Distraction Exception

In Illinois, municipalities have a duty of ordinary care in regard to city property. In other words, they are obligated to maintain publicly owned property in reasonably safe condition. To prove that a municipality was negligent in maintaining its property, injured parties must demonstrate that the municipality has a duty to protect them from injury. Injured parties must also show the municipality failed to uphold this duty, thus causing the injury. If they are unable to prove the municipality has a duty to protect them, injured parties cannot win a lawsuit.

Whether municipalities have a duty to protect citizens from dangerous conditions depends on four factors: the reasonable foreseeability of the injury, the likelihood of injury, the extent to which preventing the injury is burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden on the municipality. However, municipalities have no general duty to protect citizens from injury when a potentially dangerous condition is open and obvious—in other words, when the average person would recognize a situation as hazardous.

According to Illinois law, municipalities are not liable for injuries that occur when a person engages in activity where a known and obvious danger exists. That said, there are exceptions to the “open and obvious” rule, one of which is the “distraction exception.” This exception applies in situations where external factors cause people’s attention to waver in a way that stops them from discovering an otherwise open and obvious hazard. The exception also applies when these external factors make people forget about a previously encountered hazard or prevent them from protecting themselves against the hazard. When this exception applies, municipalities are responsible for protecting against injuries and can be held responsible if they fail to do so.

The Decision

In response to Ms. Bruns’s lawsuit, the City of Centralia asked the trial court to grant summary judgment, arguing that the evidence was insufficient for a jury to find in her favor. The court agreed and dismissed the case, saying the raised sidewalk was an open and obvious hazard so the City had no duty to safeguard against injuries. Furthermore, the court concluded that the distraction exception did not apply because the City had not created or contributed to the distraction that prevented Ms. Bruns from noticing the elevated sidewalk slab.

Ms. Bruns then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court. While she agreed that the raised sidewalk slab was an open and obvious hazard, she argued that the distraction exception was applicable in her case because it was foreseeable that her attention would waver as she entered the clinic.

The appellate court agreed with Ms. Bruns that the distraction exception could potentially apply even if the City did not contribute to the distraction that resulted in her fall; similarly, the court said it was not necessary for the City to predict the exact nature of the distraction in order for the exception to apply. Instead, the key question was whether the distraction was foreseeable. The court said it would be reasonable to anticipate that an elderly clinic patron might focus on the pathway to a building’s door and steps while approaching rather than looking at the ground. Similarly, the court said it is reasonable to expect that patients might be distracted after undergoing procedures at the clinic and thus might forget about the hazardous sidewalk they had encountered earlier.

In addition, the court noted that the City was aware of the hazardous sidewalk conditions and determined it would not have been overly burdensome to address the problem. For instance, the clinic had offered to remove the tree as a potential remedy. There were also alternative options, such as replacing the raised sidewalk section or rerouting the sidewalk to accommodate the tree.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s summary judgment, saying the City had a duty of reasonable care to Ms. Bruns and a jury should decide whether that duty had been breached.

Conclusion

Like other Illinois property owners, municipalities have a duty of reasonable care when maintaining their property and are thus obligated to remove or correct dangerous conditions. (If they choose not to, they must provide adequate warning of the hazard.) Citizens who become injured due to a municipality’s poor or ineffective maintenance may be able to recover damages depending on the nature of the hazard and the exact circumstances surrounding their injuries.

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