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FHWA Home / Safety / Pedestrian & Bicycle / A Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety

A Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety

Appendix D: Risk Management Information

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Sidewalk Inspection and Maintenance Policies: They Are All They're Cracked Up to Be

Cities should develop and adopt sidewalk inspection and maintenance policies if such policies do not already exist. Sidewalk inspection and maintenance policies serve many useful purposes including providing guidelines to city employees, conveying information to city residents, and preventing and/or minimizing lawsuits and exposure.

There are five common misconceptions and myths about sidewalk inspection and maintenance policies.

  1. The city has no sidewalk maintenance policy.
  2. A good written sidewalk maintenance policy need only say, "The city regularly inspects and maintains its sidewalks, and responds to resident complaints.
  3. If a city doesn't have any money, it doesn't need to do anything about sidewalk maintenance or worry about the Americans with Disabilities Act or other similar federal or state laws.
  4. If a person falls on a sidewalk and city employees determine the sidewalk where the person fell is defective, city employees shouldn't fix the defect because it will look bad if the injured person sues.
  5. Documenting problems with sidewalks, including accidents, can come back to hurt the city.

This memo addresses these misconceptions and myths, highlighting how to avoid common pitfalls and how to develop effective sidewalk inspection and maintenance policies.

No Sidewalk Maintenance Policy

If your city regularly inspects and maintains sidewalks, most likely it has a policy for sidewalk maintenance. However, this policy may be unwritten. Most likely, your city has a sidewalk maintenance policy if city employees:

While an unwritten policy is better than no policy, a written policy is better than an unwritten policy. A written policy serves to:

A Good Written Sidewalk Maintenance Policy Needs No Detail

The ideal written sidewalk inspection and maintenance policy contains several critical components, including (1) identification of defective conditions; (2) development of an inspection procedure and schedule; (3) prioritization of replacement and repair; (4) development of cost recovery mechanisms; and (5) response to resident complaints and concerns.

Identification of Defective Conditions

A city should identify defective conditions on its sidewalks by:

Development of an Inspection Procedure & Schedule

A city should establish a sidewalk inspection procedure and schedule. In formulating an inspection procedure and schedule, the city should consider:

Prioritization of Repair and Replacement

A city should prioritize sidewalk repair and replacement by:

Development of Cost-Recovery Mechanisms

A city can pay for sidewalk repairs and replacements or assess the costs to benefited property owners. If a city decides to assess the cost of sidewalk repair or replacement to benefited property owners, it needs to formulate clear policies and procedures for assessing costs to property owners. A city can follow various procedures including (1) notifying property owners that they need to repair/replace sidewalk by a specified date or the city will perform the work and assess the property owner; or (2) providing that city employees perform the work in all cases and assess the property owner.

Response to Resident Complaints and Concerns

A city's sidewalk inspection and maintenance policy should contain a component for responding to resident complaints and concerns. A city should consider taking the following actions in responding to complaints:

Adoption of the Policy

After the city or city employees formulate a sidewalk inspection and maintenance policy (1) the city council should adopt the policy via a resolution; and (2) city employees should follow the policy.

Limited Resources & Federal and State Laws (Americans with Disabilities Act)

If a city has limited resources, the city cannot simply ignore sidewalk maintenance. Instead, the city needs to formulate a policy that effectively utilizes the resources it does possess. For instance, if budget issues require that the city trim its sidewalk budget, the city should alter its inspection

and maintenance schedule accordingly; it should not completely eliminate the schedule. Moreover, the city should document its decision. For instance, the city should show that it balanced social, political, and economic factors in formulating or modifying its sidewalk inspection and maintenance policy.

Nor can a city avoid compliance with state and federal accessibility laws on the sole grounds that it possesses limited funds. Instead, the city must prioritize sidewalk projects and other public works projects to ensure compliance with state and federal accessibility laws. Moreover, because state

and federal accessibility laws frequently change (because of amendments or court decisions), a city should consult with its city attorney to ensure compliance.

Fixing Defects

This myth contains some truth. City employees should not repair a sidewalk where an individual fell until the city consults with its city attorney and/or the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Typically, it is a good practice to allow time for the city's agents and representatives to investigate the incident and take photographs of the sidewalk in question.

However, assuming that the city's agents have already conducted an investigation, if a city determines that a sidewalk where an individual fell is defective, the city need not wait until the end of litigation to repair the defect for fear the claimant will use the information against the city. In general, the Rules of Evidence prohibit a claimant from introducing evidence that a city repaired a sidewalk to prove that the city was negligent in not repairing the sidewalk beforehand. Minn. R. Evid. 407.

Documentation

It is very helpful if a city documents its sidewalk inspection and maintenance policy and sidewalk problems. In the event of a lawsuit, the city's attorneys can use these documents to prove the existence of city policies and the city's adherence to the policies. They can also show that the city exercised reasonable care in inspecting and maintaining its sidewalks. Sometimes, individuals believe that if they do not document policies or problems, there will be no paper trail to hurt them later on. However, what they fail to understand is that judges and juries can draw negative inferences from a lack of documentation. Documentation shows that a city deliberately and conscientiously made decisions.

Jana O'Leary Sullivan 1/09
Revised: 04/10

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Page last modified on November 21, 2013.
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