Walking the Line Sidewalk Maintenance and Liability

In a city that is made for walking, few stop to pause and look beneath their feet at the sidewalks that lead them uptown, downtown and crosstown. But these sidewalks—all 12,000 miles of them—form the arteries at the heart of New York. They are vitally important to the city, and over the years have earned legendary-status for themselves. Movies are named after these miles of concrete. Even former New York Governor Al Smith used them to his advantage in the 1920s—the tune “Sidewalks of New York” was the so-called Happy Warrior’s campaign theme song.

Holding such an important place in the history and daily lives of New Yorkers, it is no wonder so much attention is paid to their upkeep. Keeping these concrete paths sound and safe is of paramount importance—cracks, chips, and buckles can cause havoc for pedestrians hurrying from jobs to homes, and for tourists out sightseeing. Today, when it comes to preventing slips and falls and ensuring that the city’s sidewalks are optimal shape, New York’s co-op and condo buildings have taken on a large share of that responsibility, thanks to city-wide legislation passed three years ago.  

Changes in the Law

“In 2003, there was a pretty significant change in the law,” says attorney Robert Braverman of Braverman & Associates, PC in Manhattan. “The city shifted almost complete responsibility for sidewalk-related accidents to the abutting land owner. In the past, the general rule was that the municipality would be responsible for the sidewalks.”

That changed with the adoption of Local Law 49, which states, “It shall be the duty of the owner of real property abutting any sidewalk…to maintain such sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition. The property owner shall be liable for any injury to property or personal injury, including death, proximately caused by the failure of such owner to maintain [the] sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition. Failure to maintain [the] sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition shall include but not be limited to; the negligent failure to install, construct, reconstruct, repave, repair, or replace defective sidewalk flags and the negligent failure to remove snow, ice, dirt, or other material from the sidewalk.”

In an e-mail interview, Chris Gilbride, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) said, “New York City law requires property owners to install, repave, reconstruct and maintain in good repair the sidewalk adjacent to their properties at their own cost.”

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