Spring has sprung and more people are beginning to head outdoors. If you are one of those people, you may notice cracks in the sidewalk, some causing uneven surfaces. Or perhaps you are a landowner and you have noticed the sidewalk adjacent to your property is not as flat as it once was. Who is responsible for making the repairs to the sidewalk? According to Missouri common law principles, an owner of land abutting a public street or sidewalk generally has no duty to maintain and/or repair the public sidewalk; however, two exceptions exist. The first exception applies when a landowner takes affirmative action to create a dangerous condition on the public sidewalk and the second exception applies when a landowner uses a public sidewalk for a purpose other than the intended purpose. See Lange v. Wehrenberg Theaters, Inc., et al., 870 S.W.2d 880 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993). Further, individual landowners could be liable if they made repairs and did so negligently if the repairs cause, or contributed to cause, any injuries to a passerby on the sidewalk. See Schmidt v. Keane, 810 S.W.2d 701 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991).
Under Missouri law, cities and municipalities have a non-delegable duty to repair and maintain the public sidewalks, although most cities and municipalities attempt to shift the cost of the repair to the landowner, which is permissible. For example, a city may enact a cost-sharing program whereby a landowner reports the public sidewalk and its condition to the city and requests that it be repaired. The department in charge of the sidewalks for that city would then inspect and prepare a plan for repair and/or replacement and present the costs to the landowner. The landowner would then be responsible for half the cost with the city paying the remainder. In this instance, the burden on the landowner to cover half of the cost is only a financial burden meant to ease the city’s own costs, not a duty placed on landowners to protect members of the public from a sidewalk that may be damaged and need repairing. Each city and/or municipality may have different programs with different requirements, so it is important to familiarize yourself with your applicable local ordinances and codes.
Spring also means new life to all the trees that suffered from the winter cold, sometimes leaving branches, old leaves, and other brush on the sidewalk. As an owner of land that abuts a public sidewalk, a city may impose a duty on landowners to maintain sidewalks to free them from any brush, leaves, etc., but this duty is only owed to the city and not to individual members of the public. See Fadem v. City of St. Louis, 99 S.W.2d 511 (Mo. Ct. App. 1936). Missouri law also requires that the city have actual or constructive knowledge of the condition present on the sidewalk for the city to have any liability. Again, an exception exists where a landowner’s affirmative act causes, or contributes to cause, an injury to a member of the public using the subject sidewalk. If this exception applies, a landowner may potentially face a liability situation.
In conclusion, injuries that may occur on a public sidewalk require a fact-intensive analysis of the factors at play as applicable to Missouri law. Moreover, this is not a complete survey of the applicable laws and caveats regarding the same when it comes to cleaning and maintaining the public sidewalks and certainly does not discuss all the nuisances present. Accordingly, landowners should be familiar with the local ordinances applicable to their geographic region and ensure compliance.
Article by Katie St. John