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."