Iowa Supreme Court Rules That Private Landowners May Be Liable For Failure To Maintain Public Sidewalks

On June 13, 2014 the Iowa Supreme Court issued a premises liability decision that has the potential to significantly expand private landowners' liability for injuries caused by adjoining defective sidewalks. In that case, Madden v. City of Iowa City and State of Iowa, Beth Madden was hurt when she fell off her bicycle while riding on a sidewalk that adjoined the University of Iowa's campus. She sued Iowa City, alleging that it failed to properly maintain the sidewalk in a safe condition. Iowa City in turn added the State of Iowa, responsible for the University of Iowa campus, under an Iowa City ordinance that requires abutting property owners to maintain sidewalks in a safe condition and provides that “[t]he abutting property owner may be liable for damages caused by failure to maintain the sidewalk.” The primary issue in the case was whether Iowa law recognizes such a sidewalk maintenance duty for adjoining landowners.

The court began its discussion by noting the general rule that an abutting property owner is not liable for an injury that resulted from a defective sidewalk. There are two exceptions to that common rule. First, liability can be imposed when the owners of property abutting the public sidewalk contribute to or cause the dangerous condition. Second, liability can also be imposed if the sidewalk was constructed in a special manner for the benefit of the abutting landowner. Because of that general rule, usually a statute or ordinance that merely imposes a duty to maintain a sidewalk in good repair does not pass liability for damages onto the abutting landowner. The theory behind the general no-liability rule is that a requirement that abutting property owners maintain sidewalks is for the benefit of the municipality, not pedestrians.

Notwithstanding the usual rule, an ordinance or statute that expressly makes an abutting landowner liable for damages by a defective sidewalk (like Iowa City's ordinance) may lead to property owner liability. Thus, the court stated that "the central question in this case is whether the express damages provision in the Iowa City ordinance may be validly enforced against the State." The court determined that Iowa City's ordinance was valid.

The court applied the Iowa Constitution's home rule for Iowa municipalities. Under the home-rule approach, except for taxing authority, municipalities ordinarily have the power to determine local affairs as they see fit unless the legislature has provided otherwise. The court concluded that nothing in the Iowa Code prohibited Iowa City from enacting a statute that subjected property owners to money damages for failing to maintain adjoining public sidewalks. 

This decision has significant possible consequences. It means that cities can enact ordinances that pass the burden of money damages for public sidewalk accidents onto adjoining landowners. So every time a bicyclist or pedestrian is injured because of a poorly maintained public sidewalk, the adjoining landowner may be exposed to liability for money damages. 

That goes well beyond the state of Iowa law before the Madden decision. It used to be that property owners who failed to maintain adjacent public sidewalks would simply get a bill from the city for any necessary repairs. Money damages were only possible if the accident was caused by a failure to remove snow or ice. But now property owners who fail to undertake complicated and perhaps expensive repairs to a public sidewalk, which is traditionally a city's role, may get a bill from the city and a money judgment against them. That's really asking a lot of property owners, much more than the simple act clearing public sidewalks of ice and snow.

Harley Erbe