How walking on the Hill can be hazardous to your health

Sidewalks buckled by overgrown tree roots are a common sight all over Seattle, but for Magnolia resident Sylvia Cummings, a tree-buckled bit of concrete on a Queen Anne sidewalk proved to be hazardous to her health.

Three years ago, she allegedly tripped on a damaged sidewalk on Boston Street near Queen Anne Avenue and landed on her face. The fall shattered an eye socket and left her with permanent nerve damage, said her lawyer, Tim Calla-han, who is suing both the city and the abutting property owner for damages.

"My client did file a claim with the city shortly after the fall," he added. "The city never did anything."

That's not necessarily unusual, according to Sean Sheehan, director of the torts section in the City Attorney's Office. He couldn't comment specifically about Cummings' lawsuit, but there are roughly 20 similar claims filed against the city every year, Sheehan said. Only around 15 percent of them are settled, he added.

Some of the suits are dismissed because the sidewalk is only displaced a quarter of an inch, while other are dismissed because people fall on planting strips the city doesn't own, Sheehan said of a couple examples.

Still, the problem is potentially huge. There are approximately 125,000 street trees in Seattle, "of which 25,000 are planted and maintained by the city," he said. The others are privately owned.

"The city or whatever agency has a duty to provide reasonably safe sidewalks," Sheehan conceded, adding: "There's always the question of what's reasonably safe." But adjacent property owners also have a duty not to let nearby sidewalks become hazardous, he said.

Furthermore, Sheehan added, the city is entitled to timely notice about any problems with dangerous sidewalks, another reason damage suits against the city have been dismissed, he said. But Sheehan stressed that people have a reasonable duty to look out for their own safety as well.

Ownership of the property also clouds the issue. "Absent unusual circumstances," he pointed out, "individual property owners actually own the property to the middle of the street."

The city uses easements for landscaping on both private and commercial property, but it's a question of apportionment when dealing with liability issues, according to Sheehan.

Some alleged victims don't even try to nail the city for damages, and Callahan's client was almost one of them; this latest lawsuit was filed just days short of the statute of limitations for such cases, he said.

"My client is a woman who was very reluctant to pursue this matter," Callahan's said, "but she was urged by her family not to let it go."

He doesn't want to let it go, either, but Callahan sees a larger issue. Cummings works in the Queen Anne branch of the American Cancer Society, and one of her clients told Cummings she had also fallen on a buckled sidewalk in Queen Anne, he said.

Callahan has also talked to businesses in the neighborhood and said he's heard from them that other people have tripped on the damaged sidewalks on Upper Queen Anne Hill. "How many other people are getting hurt up there because of sidewalks?" he wondered.

Callahan was planning to run a classified ad in this paper looking for other victims of sidewalk mishaps, and he's convinced there are such people. "The sidewalks, I think, are very unsafe up there."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.

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