Yes, communities can be sued for their unsafe streets

By Robbie Webber

Cities can be sued if they don’t provide a safe environment for pedestrians or bicyclists. Two cases in recent years—including one before the New York Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court)—prove that. But winning a lawsuit against a city is quite uncommon, and the burden of proving municipal negligence is high. An opinion piece in Planetizen examines why more cases are not successful.

Municipalities and other government jurisdictions below the state level are generally granted governmental immunity via the state constitution that protects them from suits by individuals. But if an individual can prove that a city, town, county, or other governmental entity knew about unsafe conditions and failed to address the problem, they can be open to a suit.

Such was the case in New York, where the neighborhood association had complained about speeding on a local street. When a child crossing the street on a bicycle was struck by a driver going 54 mph where the speed limit is 30 mph, the victim and his family sued the city as well as the driver. Their argument was that the city was not only aware of the speeding problem, but had not even studied remedies such as traffic calming.

When the court ruled for the victims, many people thought that this would lead to many more suits to make the streets safer. But the circumstances of the case demonstrate why it is so difficult to win a negligence suit against the government. In this case, the city was aware of the problem, and not only did not fix it, but also didn’t study solutions. If they had looked at the street, considered traffic calming, and then determined that traffic calming would not fix the problem, the city might have won the case. It was specifically the absence of a study of solutions that sunk them.

In California, a bicyclist was killed on a road that had been expanded from two to three lanes. When the road was expanded, the city had removed existing bike lanes and not provided wide outside lanes in the new configuration. They also had removed bike route signs, deeming the new road to be too dangerous for bicyclists. The family of the bicyclist sued the city and won after claiming the city had ignored the safety of bicyclists.

Victories in suits against municipalities are rare for the reasons the Planetizen piece reveals. But cities that do not at least look for solutions to dangerous conditions open themselves up to claims.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.