One question that comes up in Philadelphia slip and fall accident cases is whether a government entity can be liable for a sidewalk fall accident on public sidewalks. Someone who trips and falls or slips and falls while walking on a public sidewalk may be able to bring a lawsuit against a government entity.
Under Pennsylvania law, multiple government entities can be held liable for a sidewalk fall accident, including state agencies, cities, townships, etc. This also applies to fall accidents that occur on government-owned walkways, stairways, parking lots, etc. However, in most cases, the sidewalk must abut property owned by a government agency, like a government building.
Pennsylvania law is pretty complex when it comes to suing a government entity for a sidewalk fall accident. Here are 3 things to know about these kinds of lawsuits:
- formal notice has to be sent to the correct agency within 6 months of the date of the incident
- proving liability is slightly more difficult than liability cases against private citizens or public businesses
- there’s a statutory maximum amount of compensation allowed
Formal Notice Must Be Provided Before Filing a Lawsuit
Pennsylvania law requires that formal notice be sent to the government prior to initiating a sidewalk fall liability lawsuit. The notice must be filed within 6 months of the date of the incident and must contain specific information, such as the name and address of the plaintiff, the date, time and location of the incident, etc. This notice requirement is mandatory. Unless there is a reasonable excuse, failure to file the notice with the correct agency will result in dismissal of the claim. Not knowing about the requirement is not a reasonable excuse. Sending the notice to the wrong agency is also not a reasonable excuse.
Proving Liability Against Government Entities in Sidewalk Accident Cases
In cases against government entities, proving liability in sidewalk fall accidents is more complex than in cases against non-government parties, like an individual or business. There are two major differences. First, in cases against a state or local entity, there must be a defect of the sidewalk that caused the accident. A defective condition on a sidewalk usually isn’t enough. As a general rule, government entities won’t be liable in cases of icy sidewalks or for failure to salt a sidewalk. Rather, there has to be some defective condition of the sidewalk itself that led to the accident. This doesn’t mean that a government entity will never be liable in an icy or slippery sidewalk accident case. They can. However, there has to be some defect within the sidewalk itself, like a broken or uneven part, that led to the accumulation of snow/ice.
Second, in cases against a local agency like a city or township, the injured party has to show that the agency had actual notice about the defect. The best evidence of actual notice is a prior accident involving the same problem or defect.
If there’s no evidence of actual notice, the circumstances must show that the agency should have known about the defect at a sufficient time prior to the accident to have taken steps to fix the defect. This basically means proving that the defect existed for such a length of time that it’s fair to say the agency had enough time to fix the problem.
Here’s an example. A Philadelphia resident is walking near City Hall and trips over a broken piece of sidewalk. If the broken piece of sidewalk is new, like hours or days, the city is unlikely to be held liable. However, if it can be proven that the broken sidewalk existed for weeks or even months, there’s a good case for liability. In order to prove how long a sidewalk defect existed, you need circumstantial evidence. If dead grass and leaves accumulated in a sidewalk crack and the accident occurred in the winter, there’s a good argument that the crack existed at least as far back as the fall or summer.
Cap on Damages in Sidewalk Accident Cases
Pennsylvania law treats state entities differently than local entities. In sidewalk fall accident lawsuits against government entities, there’s a cap or maximum amount that’s recoverable. In cases against a state entity, like PennDOT or SEPTA, the max allowed is $250,000 per person. In cases against a local entity, like the City of Philadelphia, the max is $500,000.
In addition, Pennsylvania law only allows claims for pain and suffering damages against local entities in cases of death or serious permanent injury (loss of a bodily function, disfigurement or dismemberment) so long as the medical expenses exceed $1,500. There’s no such limitation on pain and suffering in cases against state entities.