Pothole Season

Once again, it’s pothole season. We are all walking and driving around in a minefield of dangerous conditions. Potholes (and other property defects) are generally caused by the freeze and thaw process of our climate. When water accumulates in soil underneath a pavement, such as concrete or asphalt, the water weakens this soil’s consistency. When this water freezes, it can cause the pavement above it to shift, creating a variety of different problems. Sidewalk blocks can crack or shift, often creating un-level conditions which are ripe for tripping. Also, when extremely heavy vehicles travel over pavement covering a weakened subsurface below it, a pothole is formed.

However, as humans, we’re conditioned to expect smooth consistent surfaces in areas which are intended for walking. So when we encounter these dangerous conditions, often concealed by snow or poor lighting, serious injury can often result. So what are the legal responsibilities of property owners and the people traversing their property with respect to these dangerous conditions?

Many people are under the mistaken assumption that if you get hurt on someone’s property by some kind of dangerous condition, the property owner is automatically liable. However, it’s much more complicated than that. If that were the law, owning any property at all would be much more expensive than it currently is. Instead, Illinois law attempts to strike a balance between the rights of the injured and those of private property owners*. Specifically, both property owners and the people traversing that property are required to “exercise reasonable care under the circumstances” regarding dangerous conditions on the property. 740 ILCS § 130/2. Note that this discussion only contemplates people who are on the property with the owners permission, as the law is not friendly towards trespassers.

So what does “reasonable care under the circumstances” entail? For a property owner, generally, it means that he or she has a duty to inspect their property with some regularity for unsafe conditions. Ward v. K-Mart, 136 Ill.2d 132 (1990). If, during these inspections, a property owner finds a dangerous condition, it’s expected that they do something about it, whether that means repairing it or simply providing a warning to passersby. However, “reasonable care under the circumstances” is intentionally vague, meaning that the question of whether a property owner acted with reasonable care under a specific set of circumstances will often be left to the opinions of a jury.

However, simply filing a lawsuit does not mean that you can get before a jury to have your case heard. Illinois law does not let every case reach that stage. A judge can throw a case out beforehand under many circumstances, including the following:

  • Property owners have no responsibility to repair/warn of conditions that are 1) known of by the injured person, 2) open and obvious (such as bodies of water and changes in height), or 3) of the type “reasonably expected to be discovered”.
  • Property owners have no responsibility to repair/warn of conditions which are hidden and unknown to the property owner (remember, however, that they do have a responsibility to inspect).
  • Property owners have no responsibility for actions resulting from the misuse of the property or anything on it by the injured person.

So as a private property owner, what can you do to limit your risk and keep your insurance premiums affordable?

  •  Develop a property inspection program commensurate with the size and scope of your property. Depending on what kind of property is at issue, this can be as simple as visiting the property and walking the lot once a month or as complex as written policies and procedures with logs showing when inspections were done and their results.
  • When you do find a problem, do something about it. If a repair is prohibitively expensive, consider a warning. Remember, the law doesn’t require that you repair anything, just take “reasonable care under the circumstances”. Would repaving your parking lot cost you $7,500? Why don’t you just spray the pothole with bright orange paint or put a cone over it? Don’t like the color orange? Well you won’t like a lawsuit either.

As a member of the public at large who has to face the hazards of life every day and can’t afford a $30,000 surgery and 2 months off work, what can you do to protect yourself?

  • Remember that you also have an obligation to act with reasonable care as well. Look where you’re going. Wear appropriate footwear. Don’t jog on ice.
  • When you find a problem, you should also do something about it. Notify the property owner. The number one defense in premises liability litigation is “I didn’t know.” Make sure he or she is on notice of the dangerous condition and has an opportunity to do something about it.

My late grandfather used to tell me “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Wouldn’t you love to keep the lawyers away too?

*Government property such as city streets, sidewalks and public buildings are subject to special exceptions.