Connecticut cities and towns are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by people who trip and fall on sidewalks.
Taxpayers in Connecticut are paying large sums of money each year to pedestrians who trip and injure themselves on defective city sidewalks. The payouts are the result of settlements offered by municipalities to people who file "defective premises" and "slip and fall" lawsuits.
The Troubleshooters have learned the City of Hartford paid $398,249 settling the lawsuits during the past two years. The City of Bridgeport spent $361,550 in settlements closed since 2009. The City of New Haven said its sidewalk settlements since fiscal year 2009 have totaled $1,142,565. However, one case alone during that time in New Haven cost taxpayers $600,000.
"We really want to prevent that from happening again," said Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts.
State law requires municipalities to keep their sidewalks and roadways in reasonably good condition. If someone gets injured in a tripping accident, they have 90 days to notify the city.
Attorney John Matulis said a city will then look into the conditions to determine whether it agrees that the sidewalk was unreasonably defective and unsafe.
"They're supposed to take necessary steps or appropriate steps to remedy it," Matulis said. "Sometimes if that means ripping up and replacing 50 or 100 feet of concrete sidewalk that they had not budgeted for, they may not be prepared to do that."
If the injured person files a lawsuit, a city may choose to offer a settlement rather than take their chances in a courtroom. The City of Bridgeport, for example, decides how it handles the lawsuits on a case-by-case basis.
"The City Attorney's Office acts upon what it deems to be in the best financial interests of its client, the City of Bridgeport, and by extension the City's taxpayers," said Bridgeport City Attorney Mark T. Anastasi.
Matulis said it can be very difficult for an injured party to be awarded a settlement. Cities often use the "sole proximate cause" defense if it's proved the injured party was negligent. For example, if the injured party was walking and texting at time of the fall, a municipality could use that finding to its advantage.
"If I haven't used reasonable care, that wipes out the case completely. It is a total defense," Matulis said.
New Haven is addressing its sidewalk defects. It's in the process of repairing problem spots with a machine called the "sidewalk grinder". Rather than jackhammering through the sidewalk and pouring new concrete, New Haven's contracted machine slices through raised sidewalk flags, levels the concrete and creates a trip-free surface.
"It's not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but it's a lot quicker and it saves on litigation," said John Prokop of the New Haven Department of Public Works.
The City of Hartford has implemented its Livable and Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative (LSNI) and authorized the hiring of a streets and sidewalk engineer in the Department of Public Works to inspect all utility cuts and road and sidewalk repairs. According to a city spokesperson, a comprehensive plan is being developed that intends to invest at least $250,000 in reconstruction this coming construction season, with an ideal by-product being a reduction of slip or trip-and-falls.
Anastasi said the Bridgeport City Attorney's Office works with the public facilities department to take reasonable and appropriate steps to ensure timely repair of sidewalk and highway defects of which it becomes aware in order to avoid or minimize future liability exposure.
Matulis said people who want to report defective sidewalks should contact their local building departments or town halls. He said you can also report slippery or icy sidewalks, even if the municipality makes abutting property owners responsible for shoveling snow or de-icing.