Efforts by La Jolla leaders spur liability protection for S.D. maintenance assessment districts

Enhance La Jolla Chairman Ed Witt set up caution tape and cones near where a trip-and-fall incident took place in 2020.
As a demonstration, Enhance La Jolla Chairman Ed Witt set up caution tape and cones near where a trip-and-fall incident took place in 2020 in La Jolla.
(Ed Witt)

New contract language will shield MADs from liability for trip-and-fall incidents on sidewalks, councilman says.


An effort by La Jolla community volunteers may have brought a long-awaited change to reduce the liability that local maintenance assessment districts may face because of trip-and-fall incidents in their areas. Some are hoping the change will be codified by summer.

During a March 15 town hall meeting in La Jolla, San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava (whose District 1 includes La Jolla) said that rather than have local MADs be held responsible, “the city has decided to take responsibility for trip-and-falls on sidewalks,” and various city offices have agreed that when contracts are renewed this summer, “MADs are going to be shielded from any liability and the city will continue to bear the whole brunt of the liability.”

That change has been sought since Enhance La Jolla — the board that oversees the MAD for The Village — was brought into two lawsuits over trip-and-fall cases on La Jolla sidewalks, neither of which the board felt it had liability.

Enhance La Jolla is a nonprofit that administers the La Jolla MAD with authority to enhance city-provided services, including landscape maintenance, street and sidewalk cleaning, litter and graffiti abatement and additional trash collection in The Village.

The MAD also occasionally privately funds and completes capital improvement projects in public spaces, such as trash can upgrades, bench installation and sign augmentation.

A lawsuit filed against the city in April stated that in January 2020, a resident was walking along Pearl Street in La Jolla when she tripped in an empty tree well, fell and hit her face on the sidewalk.

Another lawsuit was filed against the city in June for an undisclosed amount after a person walking along Silverado Street in The Village reportedly tripped on raised decorative pavers in September 2021.

The city passed both claims to Enhance La Jolla’s insurance carrier, arguing that Enhance La Jolla should have identified and “barricaded” the hazards with caution tape and/or cones and notified the city.

The April lawsuit was settled for $40,000, and Enhance La Jolla’s insurance paid for it.

After the second lawsuit was filed and Enhance La Jolla publicly objected to being involved, Leslie Wolf Branscomb, public information officer for the San Diego city attorney’s office, said Enhance La Jolla signed a four-year contract with the city in 2019 “to manage operations of the La Jolla Maintenance Assessment District, the boundaries of which include the sidewalk where the alleged incident occurred. In that contract, Enhance La Jolla Inc. agreed to regularly maintain all sidewalks consistent with [a] City Council policy and to barricade all sidewalk safety hazards and to notify the city. Plaintiff alleges the sidewalk condition was a safety hazard.”

So last year, Enhance La Jolla Chairman Ed Witt, board member Steve Warfield and then-MAD Manager Mary Montgomery submitted a document to the city listing 1,270 trip hazards compiled after several days of walking Village sidewalks to identify them.

Earley, chairman of the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board, takes over management of the Maintenance Assessment District, which has authority to enhance services provided by the city of San Diego.

“I asked the city, ‘Do you really want me to barricade all 1,270 of them, which is what the contract says?’” Witt said. “We told them people would have to walk in the street if we did that. If we caused an issue, we would be responsible. But it angered me to think we would have to be responsible for every trip-and-fall hazard and suffer that way.”

Witt submitted the document to LaCava’s office, who agreed that “something wasn’t right,” Witt said.

LaCava — a former Enhance La Jolla board member — told the La Jolla Light after the town hall that in investigating the issue, he learned “the [trip-and-fall] liability issue has been a big problem for a long time in areas like Little Italy. Insurance costs were going through the roof and they couldn’t figure out how to manage it.”

City Councilman Joe LaCava

“The MAD inherits the conditions of the sidewalk and doesn’t have the budget to fix it. The mayor … [is] going to put language in that says local managers are responsible to identify problem sidewalks and notify us, not to barricade them or fix them.”

— San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava

When LaCava was made aware of the first lawsuit Enhance La Jolla was brought into, “I didn’t think much about it,” he said. But when it happened again, “I thought this is not acceptable.”

LaCava said he met with city departments and was told it was “a policy issue” to have the city share responsibility for sidewalk problems with community MAD managers. He noted that some of the 64 MADs in the city are locally managed and most are managed by the city.

“I said it was a bad policy because the MAD inherits the conditions of the sidewalk and doesn’t have the budget to fix it,” LaCava said. “The mayor has the authority to change the policy … so [that office is] going to put language in that says local managers are responsible to identify problem sidewalks and notify us, not to barricade them or fix them. That language will need to be [codified] before the end of the fiscal year.”

He said the plan is to introduce the new language in May so it can be written into contracts when they are renewed July 1.

“I didn’t want that just for La Jolla but for all MADs,” LaCava said.

Though Witt said he is grateful for the change, a lingering question for him is whether the current contract can be amended to cover locally managed MADs should a trip-and-fall happen before summer. “Hopefully it won’t be too late, because there will be trip-and-falls,” Witt said.

LaCava said he couldn’t say for sure whether the contract will be amended, but added: “My hope is now that we’ve realized and the mayor has made it a policy decision [that MADs are not responsible], we’re going to act accordingly, and I hope the city attorney would be thoughtful as to whether to shield Enhance La Jolla or any other MAD from those that might try to sneak something through at the last minute. If they didn’t create the problem, the plan is for us to take it on.”

Representatives of the city attorney’s and mayor’s offices could not immediately be reached for comment.

Bird Rock’s MAD is “aware of the issue and ... following the articles about the subject,” said Bird Rock Community Council member Barbara Dunbar. However, she said the Bird Rock MAD “is not involved in any discussion between the city and Enhance La Jolla regarding the MAD.” ◆