Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for Defendants in Sidewalk Slip and Fall

Plaintiff Eric Halbach suffered serious injuries when he tripped on uneven pavement on a public sidewalk next to a building owned by the defendants. Halbach and his wife, Kathleen, subsequently sued, alleging that the defendants had a duty to either repair the sidewalk or warn pedestrians and the city of Boston of the hazard. Concluding that no such duty exists, a judge of the Superior Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The appeals court affirmed. sidewalk

In June 2009, Halbach was walking on Clarendon Street in the city, near the John Hancock garage. He tripped and fell on uneven pavement on a part of the sidewalk next to the garage, sustaining significant injuries as a result. The sidewalk where Halbach fell is owned by the city. At the time of the fall, the commercial property adjacent to the sidewalk was owned by defendant 100 & 200 Clarendon Street LLC and maintained by defendant Normandy Real Estate. After the incident, Normandy hired a company to grind down the uneven payment at a cost of $798.

In February 2012, the Halbachs filed suit. Their amended complaint alleged that the defendants were negligent in their “ownership, control, maintenance and/or inspection” of the sidewalk adjacent to the garage by their “failure to ensure a safe pedestrian walkway” and their “failure to keep the area of the walkway free from defects and conditions rendering it unsafe.” The defendants moved for summary judgment, contending that there were no genuine issues of material fact and that they were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. After a hearing, the judge granted the motion for summary judgment, concluding that the defendants owed no legal duty to the plaintiffs and declining to create what the judge described as “an entirely new duty.” The Halbachs appealed.

In affirming the lower court’s decision, the appeals court first explained that the duties of a landowner abutting a sidewalk or another public way are limited. Massachusetts precedent establishes that such an owner must only “refrain from using his land or maintaining conditions or structures thereon in a manner which will interfere with the safety and convenience of travelers on the public way.” In other words, an owner is charged with the negative duty of refraining from creating an unsafe condition on the public way adjacent to his property, but no more.

The plaintiffs cited no Massachusetts authority imposing an affirmative duty on landowners to inspect the public sidewalks adjacent to their land and, if a defect is discovered, a corresponding duty to either cure or notify the governing municipality. Instead, case law establishes that the mere ownership of property abutting a public sidewalk is insufficient to create a duty to repair or warn of hazards on a sidewalk, particularly when it is a preexisting defect (not of the owner’s creation) that caused the injury.

Applying this legal standard to the facts in Halbach’s case, the appeals court concluded that it was undisputed that the defendants did not create or contribute to the conditions of the sidewalk. In the absence of such evidence, under the common law as it presently exists in Massachusetts, the defendants had no duty as abutting commercial property owners to repair or warn of hazards on the public sidewalk.

For these reasons, the court upheld the lower court’s decision.

If you have been harmed by someone else’s negligence, you may need the assistance of a slip-and-fall accident lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.

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