New London faces another sidewalk lawsuit

New London — A woman injured in a fall last year is suing the city for its alleged failure to repair an area of a State Street sidewalk where another woman was injured in a similar manner two years earlier.

On the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2018, Julia Launer was walking on State Street after leaving the Garde Arts Center with her daughter and granddaughter, when she tripped on an uneven surface of sidewalk near the front entrance to the First Congregational Church.

Attorney Scott Camassar, who represents Launer, said Launer suffered severe facial injuries, ligament tears and fractures to bones in both her hands. She required medical treatment and physical therapy, and likely will need more treatment, Camassar said.

Camassar said Launer, who is in her 70s, a “lovely woman” and a math professor at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, was “terribly beaten up.”

“What make this case so egregious is that (the city) had identified the problem and appropriated money for the repairs but still failed to fix it,” Camassar said. “It was just so preventable on the part of the city.”

The section of sidewalk was identified by the city's Public Works Department as a high-priority area in a 2016 Roadway Improvement Program Selection and Funding Request to the City Council. It is unclear if repairs were made.

Pictures supplied by Camassar to the court as part of the suit show a brick sidewalk with portions heaving and height differences highlighted as part of the report by New England Code Consulting LLC that alleges the condition does not comply with state building codes.

The sidewalk has since been repaired, Camassar said.

It was the same area where on April 9, 2016, Eleanor Phillips fell and, according to her subsequent lawsuit, suffered facial injuries, a concussion, sprains, abrasions and bruises. Represented by the Reardon Law Firm, Phillips withdrew her case in April and resolved the matter in a settlement that cost the city less than $50,000, City Risk Manager Paul Gills said.

Gills said the city faces roughly a half-dozen so-called “slip and fall” claims annually and aggressively fights them. He said many municipalities face similar claims.

“We’re not alone in this problem,” Gills said.

Public records show New London was served with three notices of intent to sue related to “slips and falls” since Oct. 15.

Marissa Thomas claims to have fallen and broken her foot after tripping over a curb at a parking lot at 38 Green St. on July 14. Linda Despin claims she fell on uneven and broken cement on the miniature golf course at Ocean Beach Park on Aug. 5, 2019. She claims to have suffered bruises and a torn rotator cuff on her left shoulder that required surgery.

The most recent notice to the city comes from Margaret Winston of New London, who claims she fell on an uneven sidewalk near 11 Moore St. and suffered injuries to her “face, head, neck, back and chest.”

Gills declined to comment on any pending cases but said in general, “someone walking on a sidewalk has a duty to avoid hazards,” and any defects in the sidewalk must be determined to be the “sole proximate cause” for a municipality to be held responsible.

Municipalities also generally have to have had constructive notice of any defects and reasonable time to correct the situation, Gills said.

“We do respond in a timely manner whenever we get notice of a sidewalk hazard,” he said.

The Public Works Department, Gills said, “is doing the best they can with the resources they have.”

The cases are handled by the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, a municipal insurance carrier. The city’s deductible for these types of cases is $350,000, down from the $500,000 a few years back thanks to a reduction in overall risk, Gills said.

“Overall, we’re doing a much better job managing risk and identifying risk before they become problems,” he said.

Gills said the sidewalk issues and problems of overgrown trees contributing to hazards for pedestrians is an ongoing discussion among city officials. He said the city is developing a strategic plan with a risk management component to address any issues.

Public Works Director Brian Sear said the city will continue its sidewalk program and expects to present a priority list to the newly elected City Council.

g.smith@theday.com

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