The decision was handed down in in the case of Steele v. City of Durham, which involved a trip-and-fall accident about 2.5 hours east of Greensboro, outside of Raleigh. The city had argued firstly that it wasn’t responsible for sidewalk maintenance on that particular strip and secondly that plaintiff was contributorily negligent. While in other jurisdictions, contributory negligence would simply reduce the amount of damages a plaintiff could collect, in North Carolina, it bars the claim entirely.
But the appeals court discredited both of the city’s claims, reversing an earlier trial court decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the city. The case has been remanded for trial.
According to court records, plaintiff was walking at night on a sidewalk that runs alongside Highway 55. It was there he stepped in a hole in the sidewalk and fell, resulting in injuries to his shoulder. He sought medical attention and had to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair the damage. Plaintiff presented evidence that the hole in the sidewalk was not visible to pedestrians because of overgrown vegetation.
In his lawsuit, plaintiff alleged the city was negligent because it failed to inspect, maintain and repair the sidewalk. The city responded with a number of defenses and affirmative defenses and then filed a motion for summary judgment.
At the summary judgment hearing, the city alleged that because Highway 55 was a state highway and is part of the state system, the sidewalk was a state-controlled right-of-way and it was the state government – not the city government – that was responsible for maintenance and repair.
To counter this assertion, plaintiff presented five affidavits from residents who live near the area, who all said it was city employees who maintained the area. These workers trimmed back vegetation on the road and put a cone on the hole in the sidewalk after his fall-related injury. Plaintiff also presented deposition testimony from the operations manager of the city public works department, who stated he was notified of the injury, investigated the site and determined the sidewalk defect was caused by a utility vault. The manager said that he used to work in Greensboro and there, the state maintained sidewalks, but thought that in Durham, it was the city that was responsible. Plaintiff also cited 19A N.C.A.C. 2D.0404(c)(6) in which the state Department of Transportation indicates its maintenance of duty doesn’t extent to sidewalks.
Still, trial court granted summary judgment to defense. Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed.
The court cited state statute, which clearly says that municipalities with authority and control of all public passages within its streets and bridges are to maintain all public streets, sidewalks, alleys, bridges and other ways of public passages. Although the city contended it was only responsible for sidewalks in its municipality that didn’t run along state-maintained roads, the court rejected this argument. Yes, the state is responsible for maintenance of state highways and bridges, but it’s not responsible for sidewalks that run along those thoroughfares.
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Steele v. City of Durham, Feb. 2, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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