Legal Responsibility for Sidewalks

People ask me about what responsibility they have in connection with their sidewalks.

The law is fairly clear.  If you, like me, own property in Portland, you are responsible for the regular care and maintenance of the sidewalks abutting your property.

In other words, Portland property owners must keep their sidewalks sufficiently level and sufficiently free from unsafe debris.  If the property owner does not, and if an unsafe sidewalk causes injury to someone, the property owner could find himself/herself on the receiving end of a personal injury lawsuit.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that these injuries are rare, home owners’ insurance generally covers such lawsuits, and sidewalk maintenance is fairly easy.  Inspect your sidewalks from time to time, remove debris, and keep the surfaces on the cleaner side.

If a tree root or something similar creates an uneven surface, mark the area with yellow paint.  When you have the funds, hire a professional to fix the uneven concrete.

For those of you who desire more understanding of the law, here’s my reasoning:

With few exceptions, the Portland City Charter requires the owners of land abutting these sidewalks to be responsible for their maintenance.  The Charter begins, “The owner(s) of land abutting any street in the City shall be responsible for constructing, reconstructing, maintaining and repairing the sidewalks, curbs, driveways and parking strips abutting or immediately adjacent to said land.” Section 17.28.020(A).

The Code then specifies that owners will be liable for injuries that arise from the negligent care of such sidewalks, stating, “Said property owner(s) shall be liable for any and all damages to any person who is injured or otherwise suffers damage resulting from the defective condition of any sidewalk, curb, driveway or parking strip adjacent to said land, or by reason of the property owner’s failure to keep such sidewalk, curb, driveway or parking strip in safe condition and good repair.” Section 17.28.020(A).

Since at least 1953, the Oregon Supreme Court gave Oregon cities such as Portland the right to make land owners responsible for abutting sidewalks, even if the land owner does not want them and/or did not build them.  Back in 1957, the Oregon Supreme, in a case called Marsh vs. McLaughlin, ruled:

“If by clear language the charter of a city imposes upon the abutting landowner the duty to repair a sidewalk, and also provides that such owner shall be liable for damages to third persons arising from his fault in failing to repair, then a person injured by a defective sidewalk may under conditions specified in the charter recover in an action for damages against the landowner.”  Marsh v. McLaughlin, 210 Or. 84, 89 (1957).

In a more recent 2000 Oregon Court of Appeals case, the Court cited the Marsh opinion in a footnote, writing that the Marsh case was one of two cases that “established the principle that minicipal ordinances could impose a duty on landowners to maintain sidewalks and that breach of that duty could result in liability in  state court action to those harmed by the breach.”  Sims vs. Besaw’s Café, 165 Or App 180, n.14 (2000).

The end result is that Portland land owners are respsponsible for their abutting sidewalks.  They should should remove mold and debris, repair major cracks or uneven surfaces, and from time to time sweep them clean of leaves and debris.

Please feel fee to call my office if you have any questions.