After paying out millions, Detroit pushes new law protecting cities from claims over bad sidewalks

City paid out $6 million to settle claims in 2013

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Arguably nowhere in the state has more broken-down, dangerous sidewalks than the city of Detroit.  Indeed, with over 4,500 miles of cement walkways--enough to stretch from Detroit to Los Angeles and back--city officials admit there are more sidewalks in need of repair than they can ever afford to fix.

Through the years, dangerous sidewalks have cost Detroit taxpayers a fortune.  In 2013 alone, while the city cratered towards bankruptcy, it paid out nearly $6 million to men and women that suffered injuries.

“The shoe got caught underneath the sidewalk, which pulled the whole sole off, making me fall down,” recalled a longtime Detroit resident, no 70, who asked that we not use her name.  “I broke my arm, I busted my knee, I knocked out a front tooth.”

The fall landed her in the hospital, cost her $900 in out-of-pocket medical expenses and left her without use of her right arm for nearly a year. She sued the city for failing to keep the sidewalk maintained and received a $32,000 settlement.

For decades under Michigan law, cities could be held liable for only certain defects that caused injuries: they had to measure at least two inches required proof that the defect had been that way for at least a month.

But last month, the law was changed.

Detroit turns to Lansing

Starting in 2015, with the city just emerging from bankruptcy, Mayor Mike Duggan’s office wanted to make it even harder to hold a city liable for a sidewalk injury. Duggan's team turned to then Representative Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, to introduce House Bill 4686.

The legislation aimed to significantly raise the standard for holding a city liable for a sidewalk injury and said that cities couldn’t be held responsible for defects that were deemed “open and obvious.”

The bill narrowly passed the House of Representatives, 55 votes to 51, but received stronger support in the Senate.  Last month, it was signed by Governor Snyder. Even though the bill was pushed by Detroit officials, It applies to every city in Michigan.

Royal Oak attorney Scott Reizen has successfully represented dozens of clients injured as a result of dangerous city sidewalks and says the new law means less accountability for cities to maintain its sidewalks.

“Before this law was enacted, it was extremely difficult to successfully bring a claim against a city or any municipality,” Reizen said, “and now it’s essentially impossible.”

One of Reizen’s past clients, a 65-year-old woman from Lathrup Village, fell on an uneven Detroit sidewalk on her way to church.  She broke her her knee and ultimately required surgery. Today, she needs a walker just to get around.

The city paid her $182,500 for her claim.  Were the same accident to happen today, Reizen says the case wouldn’t have a chance.

“If you’re a city, a municipality, you have no incentive to do anything," he said. "The worse a sidewalk gets? It’s 'open and obvious.' "

Butch Hollowell is Corporation Counsel for the City of Detroit and helped push the bill through Lansing.  He says the law was necessary because of bogus lawsuits being brought by greedy lawyers.

He cited a recent ongoing case where a plaintiff alleged she tripped because of a dangerous sidewalk.  But in hospital records, she told medical staff she fell over her own shoelace.

“You’ve had a number of attorneys on a daily basis bring fraudulent claims,” Hollowell said. “Those days are over.”

Unlike virtually every other city in Michigan, Detroit is not a member of the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Association, a self-insurance pool of municipalities, because of its high-exposure to litigation.  As a result, all payouts resulting from lawsuits come out of the city’s general fund.

No evidence of fraud

But of the 174 settlements paid out by Detroit over the last five years, the city admits there’s no evidence that any were fraudulent, including claims like Sheila Herring’s.

When she and her husband’s car ran out of gas one night, they were forced to walk home through an unfamiliar, dangerous neighborhood.  With her attention elsewhere, she said she wasn’t looking for the five-inch jut in the sidewalk that dropped her to the ground.

“I was just screaming,” Herring said. “I was letting my husband know, something is wrong.”

The fall caused permanent degenerative nerve damage in her right arm. Today, she struggles just to lift her purse and, one day, may not be able to use that arm at all. The city settled her claim for $245,000. If she were to suffer the same fall today, under the new law, her attorney says the case would be significantly harder to win.

Hollowell says the new law makes sense because it levels the legal playing field, offering cities the same kind of defenses in slip and fall claims that private businesses already enjoy.

“Citizens have to exercise ordinary care as they’re walking down the sidewalks,” Hollowell said.

“But we don’t pay taxes to private businesses like we do to cities that we expect are going to maintain our roads and our sidewalks,” said Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

“And we spent about $3.3 million…to repair the sidewalks,” Hollowell said.

“But if I pay taxes for the city to maintain the sidewalks and I get hurt on one of those sidewalks that wasn’t maintained, why shouldn’t I be able to hold the city responsible today, just as I could two months ago?” Jones asked.

“You can hold the city responsible, this is what I’m saying.  It doesn’t prevent you from bringing a lawsuit at all," Hollowell said. “It says you have to prove your case.”

Today, Sheila Herring and her husband are still paying off hospital bills from her accident a few years ago. As strange as it sounds, she says she feels lucky; at least the fall happened before the city’s push to change the law. 

“If you didn’t get the settlement you got, if you really were on your own here, what would your life be like?” Jones asked.

“Oh my God,” she said. “I believe it would be worse than a nightmare.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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