Chicago Tribune 02-21-2001 (Cracked Sidewalk)

Chicago Tribune 02-21-2001 (Cracked Sidewalk)

Peril lurks just outside your door

Broken and dangerous sidewalks have caused hundreds of injuries in the past 3 years and cost the city $4 million in damages.

By Andrew Martin
Tribune Staff Writer

At a time when Chicago is devoting unprecedented resources to resurfacing streets, planting flowers and erecting wrought-iron fences, Frank Paulo stumbled on a crack in Mayor Richard Daley’s highly touted plan to rebuild the city.

Actually, he fell face first.

It happened on a summer morning in 1995, as Paulo was taking his father to a dialysis center on the Northwest Side. When Paulo got out of the car and stepped up on the curb, he tripped on a broken sidewalk and landed on his head. The city had planned to repair the sidewalk months earlier but reneged when the adjacent building owner declined to pay part of the costs.

“It left an indentation in the frontal part of my skull,” explained Paulo, now 67. “I was hurt more than I’d ever been hurt before.”

Paulo is among scores of people who have successfully sued the city over shoddy sidewalks. In a three-year period from 1997 through1999, the city paid more than $4 million in settlements in 378 different instances to people who were injured while walking down the city’s 7,000 miles of sidewalks, a joint investigation by the Tribune and WGN-TV News found.

What’s surprising about the sidewalk settlements isn’t so much the cost as the fact that most, if not all of them, could have been avoided. In many of the settlements, city officials previously had been asked to repair the sidewalk but neglected to do so. And even years after some settlements were paid, the city still hasn’t repaired the damaged walkways.

The city’s payout for sidewalk injuries comes at a time when the Daley administration is spending record amounts on the city’s infrastructure, from paving streets and installing light posts to constructing and rehabbing schools and parks. In the 11 years since he was elected mayor, Daley has cultivated a reputation as “the pothole mayor” for his devotion to basic city services such as snow plowing, street resurfacing and alley lights.

City officials maintain that they spend as much money to repair sidewalks as they do to resurface city streets–about $30 million a year. Yet the mayor’s budget overview for the upcoming year promises to resurface 178 miles of city streets and only 38 miles of sidewalks.

Questioned about the disparity, city officials say the document, which highlights the mayor’s accomplishments on public works projects, fails to reflect accurately all of its spending on sidewalk repairs.

The Daley administration has a 50/50 sidewalk program that requires adjacent property owners to pay half the costs of the sidewalk repairs. It also has the Neighborhoods Alive program, which gives each of the city’s 50 aldermen about $1.2 million a year to spend on public works projects–such as curbs, alleys and sidewalks– in their wards. And programs, including Model Blocks and Industrial Streets, pay for some sidewalk repairs.

The city pays the entire cost of repairing vaulted sidewalks, which were raised above street level after the Great Chicago Fire to make way for a sewer system.

But many of the sidewalk settlements illustrate how many damaged sidewalks–even those that City Hall had been warned about–slip through bureaucratic cracks.

Consider the case of Bessie Quinn.

She was 65 years old in 1994, when she was walking in front of her Northwest Side home with her grandson in her arms and tripped on a hole in the sidewalk. In an attempt to protect the child, she absorbed the brunt of the fall with her hip, breaking it.

Two years earlier, neighbors on Quinn’s block had petitioned the city to fix their sidewalks under the 50/50 Sidewalk Program, but city crews had not yet gotten around to the repairs. Quinn, who is now deceased, eventually won $50,000 from the city; the sidewalk was repaired a few months after Quinn’s injury.

A similar thing happened to Nancy Patock in 1995. She won a $6,500 settlement after she broke her foot when she fell into a hole in a vaulted sidewalk near her South Side home. The city had neglected to fix the problem despite three previous complaints, including one from a police officer, and a gaping hole remains to this day.

Agueda Abreu said she ran out to the store one evening in 1993 to buy some medicine for her son. On her way back, she fell into a cavernous hole on Larrabee Street that was full of broken liquor bottles, slicing a vein in her foot. City officials had been warned twice previously about the condition of the sidewalks in the area, court records show.

Abreu, now 41, collected $7,215 from the city four years after the accident.”Instead of using the money for other things, they should be fixing the sidewalks,” Abreu said recently, pointing to the hole that she fell in eight years earlier which, despite the settlement, the city still has failed to repair.

While city officials say they regret any injuries caused by damaged sidewalks, they insist that their program to fix city walkways is adequate and that such settlements are an unavoidable consequence of urban life.

Miguel d’Escoto, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, also noted that the amount the city pays in settlements for sidewalk-related injuries is on par with other major cities. New York City paid out a whopping $57.4 million in sidewalk-related settlements in 1999.

“I do feel that the sidewalk program that we have is one of the most proactive ones in the country,” d’Escoto said. “Our goal overall is for the public safety and to bring (the amount of settlements) as low as possible.

“So, are we satisfied? No. We’re still striving to do better each and every year with our sidewalks and trying to mitigate or limit our types of liabilities,” he said.Jennifer Hoyle, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, acknowledged that there are some sidewalks that the city should have repaired earlier. But she said such oversights were inevitable given the number of complaints the city receives each year and the vast network of city sidewalks.

“There’s no doubt that you’re going to find cases where the city should have fixed something,” she said. Once a lawsuit is filed, a city crew typically checks out the sidewalk in question. If it is deemed unsafe, it is repaired, city officials said.

City officials estimate that about 60 percent of the sidewalk lawsuits that are filed result in damage payouts. The others are determined to be bogus or thrown out for lack of evidence.

Under Illinois law, the city is liable for sidewalk injuries if they received prior notice of the problem and had time to correct it. The sidewalk defect must also be severe enough to be deemed dangerous, officials said.

“Our obligation is not to maintain our sidewalks in an absolute perfect condition,” said Melvin Brooks, a deputy corporation counsel who oversees the torts division. “So you’re talking about miles and miles of sidewalks and because of that, there are going to be some imperfections, some defects, and there are going to be some legitimate cases.”

City officials said they repair sidewalks on an emergency basis if they are deemed dangerous, though that claim appears to be contradicted by many of the lawsuits.

Under the 50/50 program, the city will only repair regular sidewalks if the adjacent homeowner, landlord or business agrees to foot half the cost (25 percent for disabled and senior citizen homeowners), an idea for sidewalk repair that is used by more cities and villages than any other, experts said. Though sidewalks are city property, the thinking is that adjacent homeowners should pay a portion of the bill because they derive most of the benefit.

As a result, the city may not repair a problem walkway if a property owner refused to pay for some of the repairs, even if the rest of the neighborhood is up in arms.

“It’s a pretty contentious issue,” said Howard Rosen, who chaired a conference on sidewalk management as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s continuing education program. “Homeowners don’t feel like they should have to pay, or that their sidewalks aren’t in bad condition. They feel that maybe the city as a whole benefits and not just themselves.”

In a few cities, such as Minneapolis, homeowners are required to pay the entire bill.

And in others, mostly small affluent communities, the municipalities pay the entire cost of sidewalk repair, Rosen said. Chicago launched its 50/50 sidewalk program in 1965 under Mayor Richard J. Daley, following the lead of several suburbs.One of the primary reasons behind the program was to cut settlements for injuries, an amount that was averaging between $800,000 and $1 million a year.

During the last several years, the 50/50 sidewalk program has been supplemented by Neighborhoods Alive, which permits aldermen to address sidewalk problems in areas where residents ignore or can’t afford the 50/50 program, city officials said.

“There’s been a couple years where that’s all I’ve done is sidewalks,” said Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd).

Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) said he has repeatedly introduced legislation that would require property owners to pay part of the costs of repairing sidewalks that were determined to be hazardous, but the measure has always failed.Stone has firsthand experience with broken sidewalks. In 1998, he sued the city and a building owner for $1 million after tripping over a rise in a LaSalle Street sidewalk, injuring his elbow and knee. That case is pending.

For homeowners, the average cost of repairing a sidewalk is $67.50 per slab, or $338 for an average city lot, city officials said. Vaulted sidewalks, which are repaired entirely at city expense, cost between $12,000 and $15,000 per household to replace.

Last year, the city received 1,200 inquiries about fixing normal sidewalks through its 311 non-emergency number. It received another 350 inquiries about vaulted sidewalks.

City crews try to complete the sidewalk repairs in the same season in which the request is made, d’Escoto said.

Yet some problem sidewalks remain a part of the landscape. At 850 N. Mies Van Der Rohe Way, in the shadow of the John Hancock building, a crumbling sidewalk remains on a stretch where three women have been injured–and collected $55,000 from the city–since 1994. And on Nancy Patock’s street in Bridgeport, the gaping hole that caught her leg in 1995 is so deep that neighbors know to steer clear. Six years after Patock’s accident, the hole is partially covered with a sewer cover, and several other holes around the corner are covered with plywood boards or metal sheets.

“Somebody could disappear in that one,” said Rosario Cardella, 52, motioning toward one of the holes on the corner of 33rd Street and Union Avenue. “That’s been there as long as I can remember, and nothing has ever been done.

“Eventually, somebody’s going to get bad hurt,” he said.

Note: Attorney Thomas Zimmerman represented Agueda Abreu in her lawsuit against the City of Chicago.

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