Richmond to address rise in injury claims from damaged sidewalks

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Richmond to address rise in injury claims from damaged sidewalks
An example of a damaged sidewalk at McBryde and Wilson avenues in Richmond. (Mike Kinney)

The city of Richmond is reevaluating how to address damaged sidewalks that have led to an increase in injury lawsuits in recent years.

From 2012 to 2014, the city received about 11 to 12 tort claims annually by people saying they sustained injuries as a result of sidewalk defects. There were 15 in 2015 and 14 last year.

The claims have led to about $45,000 in settlements, along with $157,323 in legal expenses.

In April, Mayor Tom Butt began working with the city to address the rise in claims and to ultimately develop a policy that would lead to better upkeep and tracking of city sidewalks.

In defending against claims, the city has argued in some cases that a sidewalk defect is “trivial” or that the city lacked notice of the defect. But perhaps the central issue is that a city sidewalk ordinance passed back in 2000 is not being enforced. The ordinance made property owners responsible for sidewalk repair and maintenance. Property owners deemed negligent are supposed to foot the bill for injuries sustained from the damage.

But Mayor Butt wants to clarify the policy, which “allows the city to transfer maintenance responsibilities to the fronting property owners and share liability risks with the fronting property owners,” according to city documents.

“The reason we are doing this is that the City policy is undefined,” Butt stated on Facebook.

To ensure property owners are abiding by the ordinance, the city has suggested a number of “best practices.” One includes developing an inspection program where damaged sidewalks are reported to property owners via a “Notice of Repair.” At that point, property owners would be liable to repair the damage and could face a tax lien on their property for failure to do so.

The city may also install a temporary fix in order to give the property owner time to make the repairs, or city crews could repair the sidewalk fully and bill the property owner, according to city documents.

In Berkeley, the property owners splits the sidewalk repair bill with the city 50/50. In Concord, property owners foot the bill for repairs but have the option of having the city perform them at a competitive rate rather than hiring a contractor. In Oakland, property owners are given 30 days’ notice to repair damage flagged by the city and face a tax lien on their property if the repairs are not accomplished.

Richmond’s council is slated to hear a presentation on the issue Tuesday night by city staff and special counsel, with the hope of developing a new policy or to enforce existing policies.

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