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Sidewalk Grates & Cellar Doors Can Cause Serious Pedestrian Accidents

While many pedestrian accidents that happen while walking down city sidewalks or crossing the street may be minor, others can lead to severe injuries. Sidewalk grates and poorly fastened cellar doors can send unsuspecting pedestrians or workers tumbling into dark vaults below.

People may also stumble over poorly fitted manhole covers, gas caps, and other embedded sidewalk objects. Fortunately, New York City rules and regulations, along with state case law, recognize the need to provide compensation when property owners are negligent.

What follows is a general look at liability issues pertaining to sidewalk and street injuries and a summary of some actual past cases involving these types of hazards. A few safety precautions are also shared. More common sidewalk hazards are also noted, along with the likelihood of recovering compensation for fall injuries related to them.

Liability for accidents may be shared or assigned to just one party

The New York City Administrative Code requires all owners of property adjacent to or abutting sidewalks to maintain them in a reasonably safe condition. In addition, case law in New York normally holds the owners of grates, cellar doors and access covers (frequently the city, transit authorities and utility companies) liable for injuries sustained due to poor maintenance of those items. There are also Department of Transportation Rules that govern liability related to these types of objects.

When considering liability issues, courts will usually look at the reason why certain objects were first installed into a sidewalk. For example, gas caps may have been installed so that the abutting business can receive a fuel delivery. And cellar doors are usually present so that deliveries can be made directly into the basement of a store or business. In other situations, a utility box may have been installed in a sidewalk. In some of these cases, the business owners may bear part of the liability, especially if they knew of defects in these objects and failed to personally make the necessary repairs (or formally request that they be made by the utility company considered responsible for them). Liability may also be found when a business was making “special use” of certain hardware installed in the sidewalk.

Description of past accidents involving these types of hazards

  • Woman was electrocuted one winter after stepping on a utility box cover imbedded in a sidewalk. Consolidated Edison, Inc., later discovered that an improperly insulated and partially exposed wire had caused this unusual death.
  • A city worker fell into a sidewalk vault. This man was performing sidewalk maintenance when he stepped on the edge of a sidewalk grate that suddenly flipped over, causing the man to fall more than 10 feet into a vault. His injuries were greatly worsened when the grate also fell into the hole, hitting him on the head. While workers compensation benefits normally cover these types of injuries, there may also be third-party liability if the business that abutted the sidewalk had negligently played a significant role in the accident.
  • A woman barely escaped a deadly fall into a utility trench. She had simply stepped on a sidewalk grate that suddenly gave way beneath her.
  • An elderly man with vision problems tried to enter a restaurant. After being told to step over near some open cellar doors, he fell. The man’s injuries required surgery.
  • While trying to read a sign in a business window, a woman stepped closer and fell into an open cellar door. Upon seeking medical care, she learned her leg injuries were severe.

Although pedestrians must exercise reasonable care while walking across streets and sidewalks, they will normally be awarded compensation for the types of injuries described above. Other accidents can also occur when the types of potentially dangerous objects described above are jutting up above — or have fallen below – the sidewalk surface.

Additional causes of pedestrian sidewalk injuries

Painful falls can lead to fractured bones and other injuries when any of the following sidewalk hazards are not noticed and repaired in a timely manner.

  • There are broken slabs of concrete – in some cases, large pieces of the sidewalk may even be missing
  • Slabs of concrete have so eroded or changed in shape that they may retain water or other debris – including rocks, gravel, or dirt
  • Sidewalk squares have become lopsided or are breaking apart due to growing tree roots underneath
  • There are large holes in a sidewalk that can easily cause people to stumble or fall
  • Some sidewalk slabs may be a half-inch (or more) taller than others nearby
  • The sidewalk surfaces may cause people to fall when different types of asphalt or other materials have been used to repair cracks or other damage

Businesses that benefit from the sidewalks people use to enter their stores or offices have a duty to keep them in what’s called a reasonably safe condition. Of course, liability for the business owner is not automatic – an injured pedestrian must prove that the business owner should have been aware of the dangerous condition and neglected to have it repaired. Our law firm helps injured parties file claims against the property owner’s business liability or homeowner’s insurance policy.

Weather-related sidewalk injuries

New York City businesses have a duty to keep their sidewalks free of dangerous accumulations of ice or snow. City regulations even specify how quickly efforts must be made to clear areas after new accumulations of snow and ice have formed on sidewalks. Business owners must also do what they can to keep excessive bodies of water from forming near building entrances and exits. Safety mats must be properly positioned to help those walking by – or entering the premises – wipe their feet and safely walk further inside.

When businesses or private property owners fail to take proper safety precautions – or to timely respond to new and dangerous weather conditions affecting their sidewalks, negligence may be implied by courts in personal injury slip and fall cases.


All property owners must regularly inspect the grates, cellar doors, manholes, embedded gas caps, utility boxes and other items that affect the safety of the sidewalks surrounding them. A quick walk around one’s property at least once a week – and extra visits to problems areas during poor weather conditions — can help prevent many serious sidewalk or adjacent street accidents.


If you have suffered serious fall injuries due to any of the sidewalk or street hazards named above, you need to immediately contact our New York City sidewalk accident law firm. We will carefully investigate all the facts surrounding your case and then fight hard to win the maximum compensation