The story of Adi Astl has captured national attention this summer, after the 73 year old Etobicoke handyman built a $550.00 set of steps down a steep embankment to his local park. He and his neighbors requested the city build some stairs to help park visitors navigate a popular, but somewhat treacherous, shortcut. Initial city estimates in excess of $65,000.00 have prompted many discussions about how municipalities plan, design, and maintain safe public infrastructure, and avoid liability for injuries. In this post, we explore four common issues when injured plaintiffs try to sue their local government.
1. If The City Builds It, The City Must Reasonably Maintain It
Given the broad variety of visitors to publicly accessible spaces, and the limited resources available for building and maintaining infrastructure, municipalities are not expected to insure every square inch is free from hazards for all users. However, when public works are built, they must be kept in a reasonable state of repair, keeping in mind the character of the project, and the area of the municipality where it is located.
In Alberta, the duty to repair roads, public places, and public works is set out in section 532 of the Municipal Government Act. The same duty applies when non-government actors place infrastructure on public property, with the municipality’s permission.
2. The City Is Not Necessarily Liable For All Injuries That Happen On Hazardous Public Property
The Municipal Government Act sets out a number of exceptions to liability for damages caused by faulty public infrastructure, including: 532(4) “A municipality is not liable under this section unless the claimant has suffered by reason of the default of the municipality, a particular loss or damage beyond what is suffered by the claimant in common with all other persons affected by the state of repair.”
3. A Municipality Is Only Liable For Hazards It Knew (or should have known) About
Inspecting and maintaining public infrastructure is a massive job, and hazards unexpectedly arise all the time. Weather and accidental disrepair is often first brought to municipalities’ attention by citizen reports. Some disrepair may even be intentionally caused by vandalism or public mischief makers, again, which the City may not know about until someone complains. Unless a municipality knew, or ought to have known, about the hazard it will not be held liable. Further, if a municipality can prove it took reasonable steps to prevent the hazard from arising it may escape liability for a plaintiff’s injury.
4. Notice Periods Can Be Very Short
In Alberta, plaintiffs who intend to sue for their injuries must give notice to the municipality of the event that caused their injury. This varies, depending on the circumstances (eg. 21 days for snow and ice related claims). Failing to give notice within these very short windows will bar the action unless the Plaintiff died or has some other reasonable excuse for the lack of notice. However, even if there is an excuse, the municipality must not be prejudiced by the lack of notice, or it waives the requirement in writing.