Case of the Week: Personal Injury Liability and Duty to Maintain a Sidewalk

To what extent is a business liable for personal injuries suffered on a sidewalk in front of the business? Does the business have a duty to maintain the sidewalks?

In the recent case of Halbach v. Normandy Real Estate Partners,[1] the Massachusetts Appeals Court said no. The plaintiff tripped and fell as a result of uneven pavement on a public sidewalk which was adjacent to the defendant’s commercial garage building. The plaintiff suffered a bilateral quadricep tendon rupture. After the accident, the defendant hired a company to grind down the uneven pavement. The plaintiff and his wife sued, claiming that the defendant had a duty to inspect and maintain the sidewalk, to ensure a safe walkway for pedestrians, and to keep the sidewalk free from defects and unsafe conditions. The defendants prevailed on a motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed.

The Appeals Court noted that the duty of an owner of land abutting a sidewalk is limited; the owner is charged only with a duty to refrain from creating an unsafe condition on the sidewalk, and no more. If, for example, the defendant frequently dumped oil or another slippery matter on the sidewalk, and that created an unsafe condition for passers-by, then the defendant might be held to have owed and breached a duty to a party who was injured as a result of slipping on the oil. Absent such conduct, however, the Court declined to hold that a duty exists.

“The mere ownership of property abutting a public sidewalk is insufficient to create a duty to repair or warn of hazards on a sidewalk, particularly when it is a preexisting defect, not of the owner’s creation, that caused the injury,” the Appeals Court stated.[2] Because a long line of cases exists supporting that there is no such duty, the Court noted, the plaintiffs cited no Massachusetts law or case imposing an affirmative duty on the landowner to inspect and maintain the sidewalks.

[1] Halbach v. Normandy Real Estate Partners, 15-P-1500 (September 12, 2016-November 18, 2016).

[2] Id., at 6.