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Case Update: Municipal Hazard Liability

By Devin Buchanan (posts)

The British Columbia Court of Appeal recently upheld a trial decision in which the City of Salmon Arm was found liable in negligence for failing to follow its policy with respect to the inspection and repair of its sidewalks and signs.

As described in more detail below, both the trial decision and the appeal decision hold local governments to a relatively high standard in investigating hazards. The specific message for local governments based on the facts in this case, is to follow-up with inspections as soon as the snow clears, if it is suspected that there is a tripping hazard present. As well, local governments may consider putting their policy in writing, and specifying a lower standard with respect to responding to a suspected hazard.

The Facts

During the winter a resident advised the City that an advanced crosswalk sign was lying in their yard. The sign had apparently been sheared-off at or near its base. A City technician inspected the general area, but due to the presence of snow was unable to determine where the sign originated. The technician went so far as to shovel certain areas to identify the sign’s original location, to no avail. The technician then stored the sign with the intent of replacing it in the spring once the snow cleared.

Sometime after the snow was clear from the sidewalks, the plaintiff tripped on a piece of metal that protruded from the sidewalk. This piece of metal was determined to be the base of the missing sign.

Municipal Liability

The City has an unwritten “complaints-based” policy for inspecting and maintaining sidewalks and signs. When a complaint comes in regarding a sign that poses less of a safety concern than crosswalk signs and stop signs for example, the City uses “best efforts” to reinstall or fix damaged signage as soon as possible. In this case, the unwritten policy was held to represent the applicable standard of care that the City had undertaken to meet.

At trial the judge found that the City should have known that the base of the sign posed a tripping hazard within the sidewalk, by looking at the sheared end of the sign. Furthermore, the trial judge found that although the technician used “best efforts” to locate the tripping hazard initially, he ought to have continued to look for the hazard once the snow melted. Instead, it appears no steps were taken to identify the sign’s location once the snow melted.

The Court of Appeal remarked that “the issue is whether the City ought to have recognized the base could have been in a location that created a risk, thus triggering the standard practice of taking best efforts immediately to locate and remediate the hazard.” The Court did not interfere with the trial judge’s conclusion that the City had notice of the risk when it retrieved the sign, and did not use best efforts to remediate the suspected hazard.

Local governments should heed the message this decision sends, which is to diligently investigate suspected tripping hazards, in particular, immediately once the snow has cleared. Further, local governments may consider setting a lower bar with respect to their response to suspected hazards, by adopting a written policy.

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