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Busted: Atlanta’s false sense of sidewalk security

PEDS CEO Sally Flocks attempts to clear the confusion concerning who is financially responsibility for sidewalk repairs in Atlanta, which is not the same thing as legal liability for injuries.

Editor's Note: The following is courtesy of PEDS President and CEO Sally Flocks, who for years has been critical of poorly maintained sidewalks in the city. Based in Midtown, PEDS is a results-oriented, advocacy organization dedicated to making metro Atlanta safe and accessible for all pedestrians. On its website PEDS states: “Help keep up the momentum for policy change that enables the City to address the estimated $152 million backlog of broken sidewalks and missing or broken curb ramps.”

By Sally Flocks

Atlanta’s sidewalk ordinance assigns financial responsibility for repairing broken sidewalks to abutting property owners. For decades, officials assumed the ordinance protected the City from liability claims if a sidewalk defect contributed to a pedestrian injury. Council members and other officials thought the property owner would instead be liable.

Indeed, at a meeting with PEDS CEO Sally Flocks in 2006, Atlanta’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer said the City would not be liable for injuries on a broken sidewalk unless the City had notified the property owner that the sidewalk needed to be repaired. For that reason, the City had stopped notifying property owners about sidewalk defects.

In 2010 PEDS requested a meeting with newly-appointed Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza to learn more about how the City responds to hazard reports submitted to the City. Following that, Public Works began notifying property owners about defective sidewalks located next to their property. Public Works does not, however, follow up on notices by forcing property owners to pay for repairs. As a result, the City continues to neglect most sidewalk hazards reported to the City.

During the past two years, jury decisions and settlements with injured pedestrians cost the city over $4.1 million. Financial responsibility for sidewalk repairs is not the same thing as legal liability for injuries.

The Official Code of Georgia states that municipalities are not liable for defects in their streets unless one of three conditions applies:
*    the area was negligently constructed or maintained
*    the municipality had actual notice of the defect
*    the defect had not existed long enough that the city should have known about it.

Atlanta’s State of the City’s Infrastructure Report estimates that over 20 percent of the City’s sidewalks need to be repaired or replaced. Given that — and the small amount of funding dedicated to making repairs during the past few decades — City officials know that City policies have contributed to sidewalk neglect throughout the City.

The recent payouts to injured pedestrians have increased momentum for policy change. With your help, PEDS will convince the Atlanta City Council to replace the current sidewalk ordinance and identify sufficient funding to address the entire $152 million backlog of broken sidewalks, curbs and missing or broken curb ramps with 20 years.

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