With unpredictable weather at an all-time high, cities and municipalities are facing increased claims resulting from pedestrian falls. Even on sunny days, cities are not immune from potential risks, as was the case in a recent decision rendered by the Court of Quebec in Unlusoy v. Ville de Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue 2022 QCCQ 9681. As highlighted by the Court, an effective and well-executed maintenance plan combined with credible and trustworthy employees can help protect against claims whenever an unfortunate accident occurs on the city’s territory.
Over the past 60 plus years, the courts in Quebec have determined a series of principles to help guide judges in their analysis as to whether a city is at fault for a pedestrian fall on their territory. These guiding principles were well assessed in Judge Enrico Forlini j.c.s.’ judgment and can be summarized as follows:
- There exists no presumption of fault against a city, even when the walkway is covered in snow or ice;
- The city has an obligation of means to maintain its roads, sidewalks and pedestrian walkways and must take reasonable measures to ensure their safety, which includes avoiding letting a dangerous situation persist;
- The city’s fault can be the result of a lack of maintenance, design or warning of possible danger;
- In the case of inclement weather, the City must take precautionary measures in a timely manner in order to ensure the safety of pedestrians;
- Pedestrians must be alert when using walkways that present an obvious risk, including during the winter time when slippery conditions are to be expected;
- Cities are not the insurers of the pedestrian that use their walkways, and unless for a fault on their part or inaction on their part despite a known dangerous situation, they cannot be held liable for falls;
- Considering the size of the territory and limited resources available to them, cities are not held to standard of perfection, but must still be weary as to not allow a dangerous situation to develop in a public space.
Cruising the Canal
During an August 2019 stroll on the Promenade du Canal boardwalk in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, the Plaintiff, who had been visiting the boardwalk regularly since as far as back as 1984, tripped on a wooden plank which she alleged was rotten and dislodged after she had stepped on it, causing her to then fall to the ground. As a result of her fall, Plaintiff, an elderly woman, suffered injuries to her shoulder and arm and was now seeking to have the City held liable for damages.
Following testimony from the Plaintiff and several members of the City’s public works and public security departments, it was evident that there existed two diametrically opposed versions of the facts. On one hand, the Plaintiff, who was the only witness to testify in support of her claim, testified that the fall occurred around 4pm. She later mentioned that not only did the wooden plank completely dislodge, but the City’s public works employees later had to repair and eventually replace it.
As for the City, their employees maintained that on the morning of the accident, they had performed their daily walk through and inspection of the boardwalk, and had not detected any problems with any of the wood planks. Furthermore, it was not possible that the Plaintiff could have fallen at the time she insisted she did, as their shifts would have ended much before. It is to be noted that when the Plaintiff fell, the workers had been performing repairs on a nearby section of the boardwalk and immediately came to her aid when they heard the sound of the impact. According to their observations and tests immediately following the fall, the plank was solidly anchored down and only presented a slight change of elevation with neighbouring planks which can be expected on that type of walkway.
Despite Plaintiff’s best efforts to discredit the City’s witnesses, the Court ultimately retained their version of the facts. Furthermore, the Court determined that the City fulfilled its maintenance and security obligations with regard to the boardwalk through the application of short-term and long-term efforts by their public works department. The maintenance program was described by the Court as serious and rigorous and the object of considerable financial and manpower investments by the City. Their program included extensive daily and seasonal inspections, as well as regular upkeep which was warranted considering the boardwalk’s popularity as a tourist attraction.
After weighing the facts and evidence in conjunction with the guiding principles established through years worth of case law, in addition to commending the City’s maintenance efforts, the Court ultimately concluded that they were not at fault.
Not to be overlooked is that fact that the City was presented by yours truly, Robinson Sheppard Shapiro!