City sidewalks are greatly improved

New York City sidewalks have less cracks and defects in them since a four-year-old law shifted responsibility to commercial property owners, according to lawyers and officials. The law has also led to cuts of $40 million a year in city accident payouts and a 20 percent reduction in cases for the Law Department compared to 2007, according to city documents.
Slip-and-fall lawsuits were the most common brought against the city, costing millions in payouts. The 2003 sidewalk law passed as a result of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s search for ways to cut city expenditures to avoid sinking deeper into a fiscal crisis.
Property owners, with the exemption of one-, two- and three-family homes occupied by the owner, now have to meet slip-and-fall victims in court because of the sidewalk law, Administrative Code Section 7-210. As a result, owners are compelled to repair and maintain the sidewalks that line their properties.
“Once the liability was passed over, the landlords did what was right,” said Stephan Peskin, a lawyer and president of Big Apple Pothole Protective Committee, a nonprofit corporation established by the New York State Trial Lawyers Association that mapped out defects in sidewalks and streets. Under the city’s watch, “sidewalks went unattended year after year,” he said. Now, “because of the repairs, there have been fewer cases. Empirically, you’d see the sidewalks are improving.”
The mayor estimated that it would have cost the city billions of dollars to fix all the sidewalks of New York City. The city never had any intention to do so, personal injury lawyer Paul Cutrone said.
Property owners had always been responsible for the sidewalks that lie adjacent to their land, but there was no motivation for the owners to repair the sidewalks, Cutrone said. The city would issue notices to the owners to do the repairs without any penalty. In some cases, the city would eventually pay to get the sidewalk fixed and pass the bill along to the owner. In addition, Cutrone added, property owners “were never responsible to third parties.” Passing responsibility to the owners was a logical solution.
“What’s happened is that property owners, at least the ones I represent, are taking this seriously and the sidewalks are getting repaired at a more efficient and prompt rate than they had been before,” said Eva Talel, a lawyer who represents co-op and condominium building owners. “The result is safer and better sidewalks.”
However, she added, “There’s no free lunch. Everything comes at a cost. Here the cost has been put on to property owners, but responsible property owners are stepping up the plate.”
The comptroller’s office disallowed 939 or 34 percent of the 2,729 sidewalk claims filed against the city in fiscal year 2006 as a result of the sidewalk law, according to a 2007 document. Fiscal year 2006 also had “the lowest number of sidewalk claims in ten years.”
Even when accidents do happen, victims of slip-and-fall accidents now have an easier time in court because of the sidewalk law, personal injury lawyers said.
“Because you don’t have to deal with the city, its actually sped things up,” said lawyer Larry Saftler. If the case is justified, he said, “The law has made it easier to collect,” since insurance companies must now pay instead of the city.
Cutrone echoed Saftler’s remarks. “It always makes life easier when you’re dealing with an insurance company that regularly does this rather than the city that usually doesn’t settle cases until the very end of the case for discounted amounts,” he said. Cases have also become easier to bring to court because the old system required prior written notice of the sidewalk defect (see sidebar).
“I think it’s the right thing,” Saftler said. “It’s a good thing for the city and the plaintiffs, but not so much for property owners who have to now watch their front doors.”

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