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Opening Arguments

The sidewalk DMZ

Fort Wayne, like most cities in Indiana, wants everybody to help keep the sidewalks cleared. Muncipal code 99.047 says:

"Every owner or occupant of any house or other building, and the owner or proprietor, lessee or persons entitled to possession of any vacant lot, and every person having charge of any church, jail, public hall or other public building in the city, shall, during the winter season and during the time snow shall continue on the ground, by 9:00 a.m. every day clean the sidewalk in front of such house or building, and in front of which lot, from snow or ice, and keep it conveniently free thereof during the day. He shall also, at all times, keep such sidewalk clear from all dirt or filth, or other obstruction or encumbrance, so as to allow citizens to use the sidewalk in an easy and commodious manner."

But not so fast. The Indiana Court of Appeals, in a case (pdf file) from Indianapolis in which an injured pedestrian sued Denison Parking after slipping on a public sidewalk adjacent to a Denison Parking facility, ruled that a "municipality has a common law duty to exercise reasonable care and diligence to keep its streets and sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition for travel . . . However, there is no similar corresponding duty for owners of property abutting a public sidewalk . . .an owner or occupant is not an insurer of the safety of pedestrians using the abutting public sidewalk."

The court decision refers to "public" sidewalks but doesn't define that term. I don't know the fine points of the law well enough to say if there is a difference between the public kind and any other kind. (Any lawyer out there know?) Is there a difference between the sidewalk in front of my house and the sidewalk in front of a business or the Grand Wayne Center? Is my sidewalk more or less "public" because I had to kick in to help fix it under the Barrett law?

But it's interesting anyway. My house is private, the street is public, and the sidewalk has always been sort of a demilitarized zone. Does all this mean I DON'T have to clear my sidewalk by 9 a.m.?

(Via Indiana Law Blog)

UPDATE: I talked with City Attorney Tim Manges, and he cleared things up a bit. There is no difference between the sidewalk in front of my house or any other sidewalk -- they are all "public" sidewalks. But the court's ruling just deals with liability -- it doesn't address a city's right to require snow clearing and issue a ticket if it isn't done. So I have a civic duty to clear off the snow, which the city can make me honor, but not a legal duty in the sense that a third party can hold me liable if they fall on the snow on the sidewalk.


Bob G.
Thu, 03/01/2007 - 9:21am

Hey Leo...you ought to move to MY part of town...

NOBODY (hardly) uses the sidewalks...they ALL walk in the middle of the damn street!!

I guess that gets *me* (kind of) off the legal hook in that case, right?

(yeah, I still clean MY sidewalk anyway, or as I prefer to call it, the DPZ -the *depopulated zone* -it IS a CIVIC thing after all)



Mike Sylvester
Thu, 03/01/2007 - 3:13pm

I wonder if anyone ever gets cited for this violation?

Mike Sylvester

Bob G.
Fri, 03/02/2007 - 6:04am

NEVER known it to happen in MY area ...NCE doesn't have to boots on the ground to stringently enforce this type of violation...yet.
They're understaffed, and trying to rectify that.


Steve Towsley
Fri, 03/02/2007 - 9:12am

There's an element to this that is a "stopper," where it occurs.

If the city snowplows come along and shove huge snowbanks onto these public sidewalks, as happened to my elderly parents recently, the municipality is guilty, not my 80-something year old dad, who could keep his stretch of sidewalk clear with his Toro snow blower after most snowfalls, but can't possibly remove the pile several feet high after the city plows have created a huge, different problem that Dad and his little Toro aren't equipped to overcome.

I'm sure I could win any fair case based on the city's responsibility for multiplying the sidewalk snow problem by ten-fold.

The law only addresses removing fallen snow. If the city's heavy equipment buries a few inches of fallen snow under tons of street snow three or four feet high, they can't enforce the removal of snowfall from sidewalks, because vast majority of people are not up to it.

Bob G.
Sun, 03/04/2007 - 6:06am

Steve I know EXACTLY what you mean...

I'm not a "spring chicken" anymore, so when I hear the plows come through, I go right back out and REshovel my walk, because (as I blogged before about this), these guys "rooster-tail" a lot of snow, ice and street muck BACK onto your sidewalk....

A little slower speed would alleviate this straight away.

And "if" you let it sit for even a day, it hardens like concrete, making it a LOT more difficult to shovel (elderly folks could'nt effectively do it). So yes, the city DOES become "guilty" at that point.

MY advice is to berm the snow along the curbstrip as high as possible, minimizing the plow's "damage".

It's worked so far.