New York Court Holds Municipality Not Liable for Sidewalk Slip and Fall When It Had No Prior Written Notice of Defect

Dangerous sidewalk with large cracks.

In December, the Supreme Court of New York, Warren County, declined to hold the Village of Lake George liable for injuries caused when a woman tripped and fell on a sunken, uneven portion of sidewalk. Since the Village had not received prior written notice of the defect, the court in Koch v. Village of Lake George dismissed the case on the municipality’s motion for summary judgment.

The Village of Lake George is located in Warren County, about 100 miles north of Kingston, at the base of the Adirondack Mountains. Like many municipalities in New York, Lake George has what is known as a prior written notice statute, which prohibits an action for personal injury against the Village for a defective condition unless it had prior written notice of the condition and failed to repair it within a reasonable time. The City of Kingston’s prior written notice statute, which is nearly identical to the statute cited in the Lake George case, can be found in section C17-1 of the City Code and Charter. This law states, in relevant, part:

No civil action shall be maintained against the city for damages or injuries.. sustained in consequence of any…sidewalk… being defective, out of repair, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed unless, prior to the occurrence… written notice of the [defect]… shall have been filed in the office of the City Clerk of this city and there was a failure or neglect to repair, remedy or remove the defect, danger or obstruction within a reasonable time after the filing of such notice.

This section of the law also applies to a slip and fall caused by snow or ice on the sidewalk, requiring the city clerk to have written notice of the condition in that particular place before it can be held liable for failure to remove the snow or ice in a timely manner.

Constructive Notice is Not Enough

In many cases of premises liability or slip and fall, the injured plaintiff can prove either that the defendant had actual knowledge or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. In other words, one can prove either that the defendant knew about the dangerous condition or that the defendant should have known the danger existed yet failed to act on it. Constructive knowledge is generally sufficient because property owners have a duty to inspect and maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition. However, as the court in the Lake George case noted, constructive notice is not allowed in a case where a municipality has a prior written notice statute in place; in these situations, there must have been actual, written notice before the city can be held liable.

Time is of the Essence in Claims Against the City

When you do have a claim against the city, it is important to act quickly. Whereas in personal injury cases against a private party you have up to three years to bring a lawsuit, the City of Kingston code requires you to file a claim within 90 days of the accident, and a lawsuit must be brought within one year, or it will be barred by the statute of limitations. If you were injured in a slip and fall on public property, contact a personal injury attorney immediately to evaluate your case and secure your rights. In Kingston, Ulster County or throughout the Hudson Valley, call Basch & Keegan at (845) 338-8884 for a free consultation.