Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 14, 2007

City's sidewalk maintenance questioned

Woman died following a fall caused by cracked sidewalk

by Joyce Tang

A tragic fall apparently caused by a cracked sidewalk has left one Palo Alto family in search of answers from the City of Palo Alto.

On Oct. 11, Palo Alto resident Patsy Moore, 72, was out for a nighttime walk when she tripped on a cracked sidewalk, fell and broke two vertebrae in her neck. After nearly three weeks in the hospital, Moore died on Oct. 29.

"If the sidewalk had been fixed, this never would have happened," son Donald Moore said.

After his mother's accident, Moore returned to the location during the day and noticed the sidewalk was vertically displaced approximately two to three inches. Tree roots pushing against the concrete had caused the displacement.

The sidewalk area also appeared as though there had been repairs to it earlier using asphalt, as though someone had "slap[ped] a Band-Aid on something that needed more," Moore said.

Patsy Moore's friends also want to know what happened. Palo Alto resident Carroll Harrington wrote a letter to City Manager Frank Benest and planned to address the issue at this week's City Council meeting.

Palo Alto is one of the few cities in California responsible for maintaining its sidewalks, Director of Public Works Glenn Roberts said. Currently there is no inspection program in place for city sidewalks, however; the department relies solely on residents and business owners to report any defects they notice.

Every report of a defect is inspected and repaired, according to John Ballard, the department's manager of maintenance operations. Within the past year alone, sidewalk reports totaled 382, and currently all fixes have been completed.

Any police reports that raise issues about public facilities are supposed to be forwarded to the Department of Public Works, said Sergeant Sandra Brown, public information officer for the Palo Alto Police Department.

But as of Nov. 9, Roberts had not been officially notified of Moore's fall. Roberts was unable to identify a timeframe for which hazardous conditions are reported to his department or how quickly such hazards are addressed, noting that it's a "case-by-case situation."

The portion of the sidewalk on which Moore tripped had been slated for repair in late October, barely two weeks after her accident, Ballard said. It has since been permanently repaired by contractor J.J.R Construction, Inc.

According to Palo Alto Assistant City Attorney Don Larkin, there were 46 "trip and fall" claims against the city related to sidewalks in the past five years. The city settled 15 of those claims with payments. Nine lawsuits -- none of which went to trial -- have been brought against the city in the past five years, and of those, five were paid out in settlements. Settlement payments ranged from $70 to $400,000, with a median payment of $2,127.

Taking action against the city is "certainly something that has crossed my mind," Moore said.

However, his mother made the choice to be removed from the life-sustaining ventilator, after doctors told her she'd need the machine for the rest of her life.

She "decided that life paralyzed from neck down was not for her," Moore said, and had she lived she would have required intensive and costly long-term care.

Given her decision, Moore said he was unsure if he would proceed with legal action against the city.

Some residents feel the city does the best job it can to maintain the sidewalks.

Lynne Farrell was walking at night in February 2006 when she tripped on a portion of sidewalk raised by a tree root. Her injuries included stitches to her cheek, a black eye, severe bruising and abrasions and a permanent deformity to her chin.

"I'm kind of asymmetrical," Farrell said.

Her daughter, Kelly Hicks, immediately called the Department of Public Works to express her concern and report the incident. The city took care of it with a temporary asphalt fix, which Hicks noticed when she returned weeks later to inspect the sidewalk.

"I felt like the city was pretty responsive and it did get taken care of," Hicks said. Hicks and her mother never considered taking action against the city.

Although Hicks thinks regular surveys of sidewalk conditions would be helpful, she conceded that "money's always an issue and it's hard for [the city] to stay on top of every bit of it." And because the city can't necessarily afford the surveys, "we should help -- that's a good solution."

Farrell thinks that regular surveys of sidewalks would be "unrealistic in such a large city."

"I think they just have to go by what people report," she said.

The city employs its own team of concrete and asphalt workers to attend to the city's "hot spots," the most dangerous sidewalks in need of replacement in the city. Ninety percent of the time, "hot spots" comprise temporary fixes, Roberts said. These priority locations can be addressed as quickly as within one day, or may take up to six weeks.

The work is constant, and the city's concrete and asphalt workers have never been free to address areas in the city that do not qualify as "hot spots," Ballard said.

For other defects, the city employs outside contractors through the Capital Improvements Program. Districts within Palo Alto are serviced over a 20-year period rotation, which means that some problems may take up to 20 years to remedy.

"We do a fairly reasonable job. We could do better, but I don't have the staff or the money," Ballard said. And last year the sidewalk repair budget was reduced by $250,000, Ballard noted.

The city uses three methods to address defective sidewalks.

A temporary repair -- used for elevations of less than six inches within 20 linear feet -- fills in gaps with asphalt to create a more gradual slope. For displacements one inch or less, the sidewalk is mechanically ground down so that it is level again. For the most serious and hazardous defects -- elevations greater than six inches within 20 linear feet -- the city implements a permanent repair. This involves removing the old sidewalk, pruning or removing old tree roots or fixing other causes of the defect, and pouring new concrete so that the sidewalk is "restored to like-new condition," Ballard said.

A long-time resident of Palo Alto, Patsy Moore was an avid tennis player who won championships in her age group with the University Club of Palo Alto.

"If someone was sick, she was first at the door with a casserole. She always had a Christmas Eve party, and if you didn't have a place to go, you could go to Patsy's," said Patricia Starrett, a friend and former neighbor. The two had recently traveled to China together.

While grieving the loss of his mother, Moore said he believes that having some answers from the city would help.

"More than anything I just really want to understand why and how this happened. I think it's part of the healing process."

Editorial Intern Joyce Tang can be e-mailed at jtang@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Logical, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2007 at 10:30 am

The City has meter readers that walk most of the sidewalks monthly. Why can't they report sidewalk hazards?


Posted by Resident, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 14, 2007 at 11:36 am

In our neighborhood the city has painted white spots on the sidewalk between which repairs are to be carried out sometime within the next year, so I have been told by a city employee I spotted with a spray paint can. We have some red and orange marks around too which correspond to water, gas and electricity. It seems to me that they know what needs fixing, just haven't fixed it yet.


Posted by jj, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2007 at 11:59 am

Because the city may have to pay them more to do additional work.


Posted by Taking responsibility, a resident of Ventura
on Nov 14, 2007 at 1:00 pm

While it is very sad for anyone to die after taking an evening walk, I must say that we are each responsible for avoiding hazards each day. It is expected that sidewalks are not always level, especially in our heavily canopied city. There is no way any jurisdiction can guarantee that all sidewalks will be smooth.

I took a bad spill on my bike after hitting a pothole I didn't see at night, but I would never dream of holding the City liable. I just needed a stronger bike light!


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2007 at 1:35 pm

I tend to agree with Taking. It would be wise for anyone, particularly someone elderly or who has problems walking, or eyesight problems, to take a flashlight with them when walking at night.

This story reminds me a little of the story of McDonalds being sued because their coffee is too hot. If a street is tree lined, it makes sense to expect tree roots.


Posted by janette, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 14, 2007 at 2:55 pm

I had a sidewalk fall some years ago in another neighborhood of Palo Alto, and wound up with damage to my teeth and chin. The small rises in the sidewalk that are enough to trip over are not necessarily apparent to someone who isn't walking with their head down. I thank God that the damage was not worse, having your head smack on concrete is beyond words.

This is such a common hazard and it takes awhile to develop that I think the city should run a check on the sidewalks say, once a year. It would not take that long.


Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Nov 14, 2007 at 3:12 pm

This is the same story...The City has screwed up,lost the money it needed to fix the streets,side walks,sewers. Some of what is said above is true,however, if one counts up the money that has been mismanaged. Web Site and Paramedic Transport Engine Program,water rescue, Franks property tax and bonuses. And how many other programs and $$$$ You are talking a million dollars++++. How many streets and sidewalks could be fixed???
Lets look back at the sandbag scam.. The past Chief who is also in hot water for the So-Cal fires sent firefighters to protect the City Managers house.. While the Citizens had nothing.. I think many people are forgetting the money was there. It was mismanaged. Palo Alto is so great. That you can't even walk down the street with out risking your life??? The place is falling apart... Oh, butwe can't lower the flags nilly-willy.... Start to find out the truth one story at a time. Then add up the information. See the whole picture... They can check all they want, When will they be fixed. After someone falls and loses there life. Expensive sidewalks?? Maybe the city should buy the residents Helmets???


Posted by Where's Walter?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2007 at 11:14 pm

California code actually holds the adjacent property owner liable for the sidewalk. That may be why the City gets few complaints. People in Palo Alto probably don't know how good they have it. They may be afraid that if they complain, the City will make them pay for the repair. That is not the case here. As is the case for many things, Palo Alto is different.

My parents live in a more typical City. They are responsible for the cost of repairs, and they have been sued by pedestrians who tripped and fell. Fortunately their insurance has covered the claims (so far).




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