Can I Sue the City of Houston for a Trip and Fall on a Sidewalk?

A trip and fall or slip and fall come under the purview of premises liability, a branch of personal injury law. It is widely used in cases where a person slips and falls on another person’s property. Property here could be a private premise or a public sidewalk. 

Whichever the case, the property owner is usually liable for the harm caused to the person who slips and falls on their premises. This is because landowners owe their visitors a duty of care to keep their premises free from hazardous conditions. Thus, breach of this duty amounts to a civil wrong. 

This law is quite simple when dealing with private property owners. It becomes complicated when the premises is public property maintained by a government entity. As Houston personal injury attorneys, we’ve seen trip and fall victims wonder if they can sue the city government for their injuries. 

We will attempt to answer this question. But for more detailed information, contact McDonald Worley. 

How Often Do Trip and Fall Accidents Happen? 

Tripping and falling are more common than most people know. According to the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI), over 8 million emergency room visits to hospitals result from slipping and falling. It could happen at work, in a parking garage, a private store or stall, or on a public sidewalk. 

The following contribute to the number of slip and fall accidents:

  • Wet and uneven floors
  • Cluttered floors
  • Parking lot potholes
  • Poorly constructed staircases 
  • Torn carpeting
  • Recently mopped or waxed floors 
  • Slippery substance
  • Footwear
  • Adverse weather
  • Defective sidewalk

In Houston, trips and falls are quite common on sidewalks. Before the city’s government embarked on a repair campaign in 2018, sidewalk accidents were common. Most neighborhoods had broken sidewalks, cracked, or uneven sidewalks. 

The notoriously bad pavements made it hard for people to walk around as they feared tripping and falling. Sidewalk accidents became quite common and resulted in several types of injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury

The problem of sidewalk accidents in Houston was compounded by the fact that most people with sidewalk injury did not know who to sue. Since the city maintains the sidewalks in front of private property, are they the liable party or the property owner? To answer this, we need to look at what the law says.

Who Owns Sidewalks in Houston? 

When a dangerous condition injures a pedestrian on city sidewalks, the legal responsibility depends on the status of the dangerous sidewalk. It also depends on the applicable laws and the availability of certain defenses. 

When filing a claim for injury caused by a damaged sidewalk, you must first determine if the sidewalk is private or public. Public sidewalks are most common and separate the city streets from private properties. A private sidewalk is located solely on private property.

In Houston, the governmental entity, the Houston Public Works, is responsible for building sidewalks in some specific areas. This includes sidewalk programs for schools, thoroughfares, and improved accessibility for people with disabilities. Thus, it follows that sidewalks meeting these criteria belong to the city.

If a dangerous condition or defective condition causes a trip and fall, the city might be liable. In the same way, a private property owner would be liable for falls on their premises. 

Who Maintains Sidewalks in Houston? 

Just because a sidewalk is not located solely on private property in Houston does not mean that the city government is responsible for it. Houston law defines a sidewalk as “a hard-surfaced walking area including that portion of a public street or pedestrian realm that is between the back-of-curb and the adjacent property lines or public easement lines, and that is publicly designed for or is ordinarily used for pedestrian travel.”

Thus, to identify what sidewalk falls under public property, one must bear this definition in mind and mark the property lines. For private-owned defective sidewalks, the Houston Municipal Code provides that maintenance is the responsibility of the owners. If the sidewalk falls into disrepair and the owner does not fix it, residents can file a request to the city using 311. 

If the premises owner fails to fix the defective condition, there is no punishment stipulated by the code. Rather, if the government agency in charge has the owner’s permission, the municipal department will construct a new sidewalk in high-needed areas. However, the city will not typically assume the responsibility for repairs or any personal injury.

How Do You Prove Fault in a Trip and Fall Accident on a Sidewalk? 

The nature of a trip and fall claim is that there is no precise way to identify who is guilty. For every sidewalk accident case, the question is whether the property owner acted carefully to prevent the occurrence. Suppose the city is responsible for clearing an icy sidewalk. Failing to do this would amount to carelessness if a trip and fall accident happens. 

Conversely, the victim must not be at fault for the accident. You must show that you were unaware of the damaged sidewalk. You can also assert that the situation was such that you were unable to see the defect. It means that the dangerous condition must be one that a reasonable person could not have known of.

In summary, to establish a private property owner or government agent’s liability, you must show that:

  • They created the condition.
  • They knew the defective condition existed but negligently failed to fix it.
  • The dangerous condition existed long enough for the property owner to be aware of it and correct it to prevent the trip and fall.

Can I Sue the City of Houston For a Sidewalk Accident?

The simple direct answer to this question is YES. The Texas Tort Claims Act stipulates that a municipality can be held liable for two types of defects in a sidewalk. One is special defects, and the second is premise defects. 

Special Defects Vs. Premises Defects

A special defect presents an unexpected and unusual danger to pedestrians. A premises defect is a long-standing, routine, or permanent defect. For the first, you must prove that the city knew or should have known of the hazard. An example is road excavations.

For the second, you must prove the city had “actual knowledge” while you were unaware of the hazard. An example is a slippery surface or liquid substance on the floor.  Lastly, if the defective condition is a design defect, the act would be a discretionary one left for the city, and there will be no immunity. 

Sovereign Immunity and Liability for Injuries

After establishing the type of defect you’re suing for, the next thing to know is the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity. Like other states in the U.S., Texas uses this legal principle to protect public officer holders and their staff from civil lawsuits. The common law doctrine states that the government must permit people before they can sue them. 

The Texas Tort Claims Act gives the state residents the right to file a legal action against the state, cities, and counties. However, the lawsuit must be for specific limited circumstances listed in Section 101 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code. For personal injury claims, you can sue:

  • If a government employee operating a government vehicle in the course and scope of their employment causes property damage, injury, or death.
  • Suppose there’s a personal injury or death caused by a condition or use of a tangible personal or real property. It must be such that a private person would be liable under Texas laws had they caused the condition.

What Are the Notice Requirements for a Claim Against the City of Houston? 

The City of Houston stipulates that before the city would be liable for damages in a personal injury claim: 

  • The claimant must give the mayor and city council notice in writing of such injury and destruction.
  • The notice must come within 90 days from when the claimant sustained the injury.
  • The claimant’s notice must provide information on where and how the injury occurred.
  • The notice must show the extent of damages, the amount for which the claimant will settle, the claimant’s street number, and the date of filing the notice. The residence must be one that the claimant has resided in for six months.
  • The claimant must provide the names and addresses of witnesses.

If you fail to bring the notice within the time stipulated, the failure instantly exonerates the mayor and the city of liability. It’s the same for failing to meet any of the requirements. This is why you should work with a personal injury attorney from McDonald Worley..

What Is the Statute of Limitations on Liability Claim Against the City of Houston? 

If you file the notice within the proper period, you still have two years to file a lawsuit. The time starts counting from when the sidewalk injury occurred. This is because the notice is a formality to get the government’s consent to sue. In either case, commence the process immediately so that your claim does not become statute-barred. 

What Are the Limitations on Damages Under the Texas Tort Claims Act? 

Section 101.023 of the Texas Tort Claims Act provides the damage cap for personal injury actions against governmental agencies. The amount you can claim depends on the type of government entity you are suing. The state and city government allows victims to sue for up to $250,000 per person and $500,000 per incident. 

All other government levels allow for $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. Punitive damages (exemplary damages) are not allowed against the government. They have immunity against such damages. Our Houston licensed attorneys can explain better.  

What’s the Average Payout for a Trip and Fall in Houston?

After a sidewalk accident, victims ask who they can sue; the next thing they want to know is how much they can get. The first thing to know is that there is no average payment. You can get tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands. You could also get as much as the damage cap limit. 

What determines the amount you get is the severity of your injuries. Simply put, a person with a head injury would get more monetary damages than the one who only fractured their wrist. The total amount of your medical bills also play a role. Here, you should consider the cost of past, current, and future treatment.

If you made out-of-pocket expenses while filing your claim, it would also impact your settlement sum. It’s the same for lost wages for the time your injury kept you away from work. Lastly, the degree of your emotional injuries like mental anguish will also impact your payment. However, the preceding is hard to prove, and you will need to call a mental health expert to prove emotional harm.

Get Expert Legal Representation From McDonald Worley!

If you suffered a severe injury from a sidewalk accident in Houston, you can get compensation against the city. Our lawyers will ensure you file your claim within the city’s guidelines. We will work tirelessly to get you compensatory damages and will not relent until we win. Contact McDonald Worley today for a free consultation to find out your options. 


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