City Found Liable for Trip and Fall on Broken Sign

In Binette v. Salmon Arm (City), 2017 BCSC 302, a women brought a suit against the city of Salmon Arm after she tripped on a metal traffic sign that was poking out the sidewalk. A crosswalk sign had been severed from its base and had remained in the sidewalk. It was later repaired sometime after the snow in the area had receded.

Although a public authority, like a city, can be liable for some of its actions, the law distinguishes between policy decisions and operational decisions (Just v. British Columbia, [1989] 2 S.C.R. 1228.).  A public authority cannot be held liable for loss stemming from a policy decision, but can be held liable for how it implements its own policy decisions.

In distinguishing between an operational decision and policy decision, the Supreme Court in Just held that policy decisions involve social, political and economic factors and are generally made by a person of a high level authority in the ag
ency. True policy decisions are ones which will usually be dictated by financial, economic, social and political factors or constraints, and include such things as budgetary allotments for departments (Just, Brown v. British Columbia (Minister of Transportation and Highways), [1994] 1 S.C.R). In contrast, “operational decisions cover the performance of carrying out of a policy and are usually made on the basis of administrative direction, expert or professional opinion, technical standards or general standards of reasonableness” (Brown).

In this case, the City had an unwritten complaints based policy for inspecting and maintaining sidewalks. When a complaint is received, the City investigates and determines whether the defect complained of is an immediate hazard and if so, takes immediate steps to repair it. If it is not possible to make immediate repairs (for example due to weather), the hazard is to be flagged or marked to make it stand out as a warning to others until it can be repaired.

The plaintiff in this case alleged that the City was negligent because they didn’t remove the base of the sign which posed a hazard to persons walking on the sidewalk and because didn’t remove or repair the hazard within a reasonable period after the snow melted.

Mr. Justice Weatherill found that the City’s policy with respect to how the sidewalks are inspected or repaired were policy decisions and could not found a basis for imposing liability. The question, he held, was whether the City took reasonable care in all circumstances to see that the plaintiff was reasonably safe and used its best efforts (as required by the City street hazard policy) to repair the hazard caused by the base of the sign.

He found that although the City had made best efforts to find out where the base of the broken sign was. Due to the snow, the inspector was unable to do so. However, Mr. Justice Weatherill found that the City knew the severed sign was disconnected from its base and was still somewhere near the sidewalk. Photographs from the site shortly after the snow cleared showed the base sticking up. He held that the City did not follow its own internal policies made no efforts to find and replace the base at that time and ultimately found the City responsible for the plaintiff’s injury.

Having succeeded on her liability claim against the City, she was free to proceed to trial to prove her damages.

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