Among the myriad of actions undertaken by a City Council in the course of the year, the development and implementation of a sidewalk plan is probably one of the most important. Sidewalks enhance mobility and accessibility for pedestrians, while at the same time, dramatically decrease the risk of motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians. However, when sidewalks become cracked or broken they can be minefields for pedestrians, or worse, cause pedestrians to step into vehicular traffic in order to avoid tripping hazards. Because sidewalks are a part of infrastructure in the same manner as roadways it is vital that City Councils regularly adopt and follow a program consisting of inspection of sidewalks, along with prioritization and budgeting of repairs and/or replacement.
Adoption of a sidewalk plan goes beyond just good planning – it also creates a shield of immunity for the City in the event that a pedestrian is injured because of a defective sidewalk. The Kentucky Court of Appeals has held that a city may acquire immunity from slip and fall claims involving sidewalks if it can show that it has formally adopted a sidewalk plan. The appellate court denied a pedestrian/plaintiff’s claims arising from a defective sidewalk, holding that the adoption of a sidewalk plan is a legislative act, and therefore the City was exempt from liability. Russell v. City of Owensboro, 2014 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 275. A city’s adoption of a sidewalk plan triggers the immunity because the Kentucky statutes provide that local governments shall not be liable for any claim arising from the City Council’s “exercise of discretion, when in the face of competing demands, the local government determines whether and how to utilize or apply existing resources”.
The Russell decision heralds judicial recognition of: (1) the modern-day need for cities to expand and promote public walkways, and (2) the attendant financial burdens that come with maintaining miles of sidewalks. So, to the extent that a City Council takes the time to adopt and implement a program of sidewalk inspection and prioritization, “THINKING you can” may in fact be just good enough.