Injured On Town Or City Property? How Municipal Liability Requiring Prior Written Notice Can Affect Your Claim.

Imagine that you’re walking along your neighbor’s front walkway and trip over some type of significant defect. Whether it’s a “lip” or a large crack that causes you to trip and fall, you’d likely be able to pursue a claim for injuries you suffered as a result. While the law regularly allows for claims for pain and suffering stemming from owners’ negligence, the same isn’t true when a municipality such as a city, town, or village is involved.

Unlike a claim against a private individual, municipalities are given significant protections. Most city law and local ordinances have adopted or even expanded the protections set forth under Section 50-e(4) of New York’s General Municipal Law.

 This law states that no civil action may be brought against a municipality for personal injuries sustained as a result of a defect in any “street, highway, bridge, culvert, sidewalk or crosswalk” unless they received prior written notice of the alleged defect before the incident in question.  Simply put, unless someone else had previously written to the municipality informing them of the alleged problem, you’d be unable to bring your claim. 

To further complicate things, a recent decision from the Court of Appeals (New York State’s highest court) in Hinton v. Village of Pulaski extended these protections from the six specific locations listed above to other areas using a “functional equivalency test.”  First discussed in the case of Woodson v. City of New York, the Court of Appeals found that stairs which were shallow and constructed of the same material as the sidewalk above and below it essentially served the same purpose that a “standard sidewalk would serve” and extended the requirement of prior written notice. The Court took its first leap towards expanding the restrictions on bringing a claim against a municipality concerning premises liability in Groninger v. Village of Mamaroneck, finding that a municipal parking lot was equivalent to a highway for purposes of the local ordinance requiring prior written notice. This decision wasn’t expanded until recently, when the Court again applied their functional equivalency argument in finding that an exterior stairway which connected a public road to a municipal parking lot “may be classified as a sidewalk for purposes of prior written notice…[as] it ‘functionally fulfills the same purpose that a standard sidewalk would serve.’” 

Despite this recent trend, there’s some hope for plaintiffs that there could be a reversal which will upend the functional equivalency line of thinking, as several cases leading up to Hinton argued that prior written notice should be restricted solely to the six original locations listed above. Most significantly, the groundwork may have already been established to reverse the Court of Appeals’ precedent through a lengthy dissent in Hinton. Judge Wilson (joined by Judge Fahey) argued that this rationale is incorrect and directly subverts the original aims of the prior written notice statutes which clearly showed “an intent to exclude any others not mentioned” outside of the original six locations.

Given the complexity of cases involving municipalities, city law, and the ever-changing legal landscape, if you have sustained injuries due to a defect on municipally owned premises, contact Segar & Sciortino today. We’ll look at your case from every angle to help you get all the benefits you deserve.  

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