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In L.A., anything but a crack response to tree-buckled sidewalks

The city leaves root-damaged sidewalks in disrepair for years, even when they produce multiple injury lawsuits.

Steve Lopez

12:00 PM PST, February 1, 2014

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When I asked for a list of all the claims filed against the city of Los Angeles by people who have tripped and injured themselves on city sidewalks, I didn't realize I might throw my back out just lifting the document.

OK, a slight exaggeration. But the list is 98 pages long, and since 2007 the city has paid out several million dollars annually.

While a few of the cases involve potholes or crumbling playgrounds, this is primarily a pedestrian vs. pavement problem, with the pavement always winning.

"Plaintiff alleges trip and fall on a sidewalk which was uplifted due to tree roots," says the summary of a $125,000 payout in 2009 involving a man who took a tumble at Victory Boulevard and Valjean Avenue in Van Nuys. "Plaintiff claims he fractured his foot and ankle."

The brief summaries of each case present a litany of head gashes, dislocations and broken noses, pelvises, arms and legs, with payouts ranging from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand. The elderly and disabled are among the army of wounded foot soldiers, some of whom have been swept off to emergency rooms by ambulance.

"Paramedics brought me to the hospital. I couldn't even move," said Ludmilla Klet, who went down hard on Bessemer Street in the San Fernando Valley in October of 2009.

She was walking to work, she told me, and didn't notice that the sidewalk was ruptured by tree roots.

"I broke my hip and had a total hip replacement," said Klet. "I was a very athletic person but will probably be limited the rest of my life."

The city settled her case in 2011 for $425,000.

In Sylmar, retired mail carrier Steve Garfinkel took a tumble in March of 2009 near the intersection of Astoria and Foothill.

"It blew out my rotator cuff," said Garfinkel, who has nerve damage and limited motion after surgery and a $27,500 settlement.

And in Hollywood, 73-year-old Kathleen Law is still hobbled by a fractured knee that was surgically wired together after she took a $50,000 fall near Alfred and Romaine streets in 2008.

"They can't just leave the sidewalks like that," said Law.

That's a perfectly logical reaction. But the city does just leave the sidewalks like that, for years, even when they produce multiple lawsuits. The city is responsible for damage, by the way, when the problem is caused by roots from trees lining city streets. So how often do they trim those trees? About every half a century, and don't laugh, because I'm not kidding.

As far as I can determine, the site of the most trip-and-fall claims is the 500 block of Vermont Avenue, which has had seven lawsuits since 2007. County offices and a nearby Metro station make for lots of foot traffic on pavement that looks as if it was hit by an earthquake, with roots causing the damage, and asphalt patch jobs helping only slightly.

On the wobbly pavement in question, I bumped into Marv Southard, director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, who said some of his employees are among those who have filed lawsuits. He said the county offered to fix the sidewalk, but county and city lawyers haven't yet resolved liability issues.

"WATCH YOUR STEP!!!" advises a sign at the building's exit door. "UNEVEN SIDEWALK."

Uneven sidewalk does not begin to describe the disaster on the 2400 block of Prosser Avenue, just below Pico in Rancho Park. Roots have lifted and twisted the pavement a good 2 feet, and my advice is that you avoid it unless you happen to own a pack mule.

Resident Sara Hays, who alerted me, said it's been like that for at least 10 years. A jogger and a mom pushing a stroller detoured around it while I was watching, which may explain why this location hasn't been the site of any lawsuits.

Just about every neighborhood in Los Angeles has sidewalks as ridiculously awful as this one. City officials argue that after decades of neglecting trees and cracked pavement, there's no easy way to come up with the estimated $1.5-billion fix. OK, sure. But that's no excuse for how miserably they've fallen down on the job, so to speak.

There is, at least, a plan to chip away at the problem. City administrative officer Miguel Santana told me that $10 million has been included in the city budget for sidewalk reconstruction, with priority to be given to locations that have brought multiple lawsuits.

But details won't be hammered out for months, and a class-action lawsuit over the disrepair of streets — on behalf of disabled residents — is a factor in ongoing negotiations.

A $3-billion bond measure city officials hope to put on the November ballot would pay only for street repairs as currently conceived, though it's possible sidewalks could be added to the proposal. Either way, the measure, which would add about $200 a year to the property tax bill of a home assessed at $500,000, wouldn't begin to fix all the city's streets and sidewalks. Should we be doing more?

Would you support a $3-billion bond measure on the November ballot?

Would you prefer a $4.5-billion bond measure that fixes more of the problem?

Or would you rather watch your step, and keep a good lawyer's business card in your pocket, just in case?

steve.lopez@latimes.com