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Street Smarts: Untangling Liability for Defective Conditions

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So, you’ve been sued because someone was injured, or possibly damaged their personal property, due to a defect in the road or street next to your property. Are you responsible?

While the specific circumstances of any given case will always be the factors that determine the ultimate answer, as a general matter, a property owner does not own the public street or road, and the municipality might be the real party at fault.

Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act states that “no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by an act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8541. There are exceptions however. See e.g. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(6) (enumerating the street related exception).

There is a body of caselaw concerning various iterations of the municipality’s responsibility for a public street. For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that [u]nder Pennsylvania law “a municipality is required to construct and maintain its highways in such a manner as to protect travelers from dangers which, by the exercise of normal foresight, careful construction and reasonable inspection, can be anticipated and avoided.” Mitchell v. Rochester Borough, 395 Pa. 373, 378, 150 A.2d 338, 340 (1959). A municipality owes this duty not only to motor vehicles, but to pedestrians who, in the absence of sidewalks, have rights “equal” to those of motor vehicles on roadways. Neidlinger v. Haines, 331 Pa. 529, 532, 200 A. 581, 582 (1938).

The type of precautions that are to be taken by a municipality in the construction and the maintenance of a safe highway is ascertained by examining the nature of the traffic which uses a roadway. Rodgers v. Shaler Township, 164 Pa.Super. 558, 560, 67 A.2d 806, 808 (1949). A municipality's duty “is not confined to maintaining the bed of . . . (a) road in a solid and safe condition and clear of obstructions, but extends to the erection of barriers or other devices for guarding unsafe and dangerous places on or along . . . (a) road.” Rodgers, supra. The question of whether a municipality has taken the requisite precautions which it owes to travelers is one for the jury. Mitchell, supra.

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