Local Authorities in England and Wales can often be heard to exclaim their frustration at the number of claims brought each year in respect of tripping accidents on the highway. Such claims have contributed, in part at least, to the perception of a litigation culture which is spiraling out of control.
But take a moment to consider the position across the other side of the Atlantic, New York to be precise. Following a recent trip to the big apple, I found myself geekily impressed by the width and good condition of the sidewalks throughout Manhattan. And here’s the reason why. Under New York Law, the City authority is not liable for defects in the highway unless they are specifically drawn to their attention. There must be actual knowledge in order to establish liability.
In order to deal with this problem, in 1979 a group of New York State Trial Attorneys formed the snappily titled ‘Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk protection Corporation’. Each year, this body funds the cost of an independent mapping company to walk the streets and record every single crack, crevice and loose paving slab in the whole city. By autumn, the corporation will send their 6,000-page survey to the city's Department of Transportation and, voila, the State can no longer deny that it had no prior knowledge of the problems!
The cost of mapping the streets of Manhattan doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime. Or at least not straightaway. The sting in the tale is that the ‘side-walk claims’ are one of the biggest grossing forms of litigation in the state, following medical malpractice. Each year, millions of dollars of public money are spent settling these actions, and contingency fees allow the attorneys to recover a percentage of the damages for themselves.
So next time you find yourself grumbling about the state of English highways law, spare a thought for our friends across the pond.