San Diego paying out $1M in another sidewalk injury settlement

  • San Diego is paying $1 million to settle a sidewalk injury lawsuit.
  • The payout pushed the total San Diego has paid in sidewalk settlements above $11 million in the past five years.
  • The payouts have stirred debate about who should be legally responsible for damaged sidewalks and how the city should tackle a large backlog of repairs.

San Diego agreed on Tuesday to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit over injuries caused by a damaged sidewalk in University Heights, bringing the amount the city has paid out for such injuries to more than $11 million over the past five years.

The string of large payouts, including a nearly $5 million settlement in March 2017, has stirred debate about who should be legally responsible for damaged sidewalks and how an estimated $39 million backlog of repairs should be tackled.

It’s unclear what will cost taxpayers more: shifting legal responsibility for repairs from homeowners to the city to accelerate the work, or sticking with the status quo and continuing to occasionally pay out large settlements.

Some City Council members lobbied last year for a 90-day deadline to fix reported sidewalk damage, and for a policy change eliminating the responsibility of homeowners to share the cost of fixing damaged sidewalks next to their property.

Supporters say shifting all costs to the city — and away from homeowners – would simplify a confusing policy and avoid the inaction that often comes when homeowners can’t afford their portion of the repair bill.

City Attorney Mara Elliott, however, issued a memo in October saying the proposed changes might actually put the city at higher risk of large injury payouts.

Elliott wrote that such a specific requirement as the 90-day deadline would make the city vulnerable to lawsuits when it’s not met, with plaintiffs pointing out that the city violated its own policy.

She also criticized the proposal to relieve property owners of repair costs, saying it would be a windfall for their insurance companies at taxpayer expense. Other cities have done exactly the opposite in recent years, she wrote.

The council’s Rules Committee last fall asked for an analysis of how much more the city would have owed in payouts without homeowners and their insurance companies to share the burden.

Supporters of the shift in responsibility say it has advantages beyond accelerating repairs.

They say most property owners have no idea they are responsible for the sidewalks in front of their house or condo, making it unfair to put the burden of paying for repairs on them.

Others say it makes sense for homeowners to be responsible because it’s nearly impossible for city officials to be aware of every needed sidewalk repair.

Recent assessments of the city’s 4,550 miles of sidewalk estimate there are about 80,000 needed repairs. In addition, 620 miles of city streets lack sidewalks.

City officials said spending significantly more money on sidewalk repairs in recent years has already reduced the backlog from $52.7 million to $38.8 million since 2015. But officials say they won’t be caught up until about 2029.

The latest payout of $1 million, which was approved by the City Council on Tuesday, settles a lawsuit filed last year by Edward and Mary Jo Grubbs for injuries Mary Jo suffered when she tripped on uneven sidewalk in April 2016.

According to city documents, she fractured both arms, requiring several surgeries, and she suffered a stroke that resulted in partial vision loss that has been deemed permanent.

The settlements come just over two months before a jury trial in the case was scheduled to begin on May 25 before Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss.

Cheryl Nolan, a spokeswoman for Elliott, the city attorney, wrote in an email response on Tuesday that “the settlements reflect the damages.”

The trip and fall occurred as the Grubbs were walking north on Park Boulevard at Madison Avenue in University Heights. It took place in the southwest corner of an unmarked crosswalk.

The lawsuit, filed in January 2017, said the “unexpected elevation changes” and “uneven surfaces” were “hidden, camouflaged and dangerous” to pedestrians crossing the street.

The suit claimed the city was at fault for not being aware of the problem and not placing warning signs or barriers to help pedestrians avoid the dangerous area.

The suit says Mary Jo Grubbs suffered “severe shock and injury to her nervous system and person” that will require continuing medical care and possibly prevent her from resuming work.

Edward Grubbs suffered emotional distress and has been deprived of love, companionship, comfort from his wife and consortium with her, the suit says.

The couple’s attorney, Robert Francavilla, didn’t return a phone call on Tuesday.

It's the biggest settlement since the city paid $4.85 million to Del Cerro resident Clifford Brown a year ago for a 2014 crash in which he tore spinal cord ligaments and lost several teeth when he and his bike were launched 28 feet by tree-damaged sidewalk.

That settlement, the largest in city history for a case involving sidewalks, was unusually big because of Brown’s medical bills, his need for future medical care and the possibility he won’t be able to work again.

In December, a jury awarded Cynthia Hedgecock, the wife of former mayor Rodger Hedgecock, just under $85,000 for ruptured breast implants she suffered during a 2015 sidewalk fall.

An attorney for Hedgecock said the city behaved with negligence and carelessness by not repairing a 2.5-inch concrete lip in a public sidewalk in Pacific Beach that was caused by a tree.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick

Copyright © 2018, La Jolla Light
55°