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Sidewalks

"Don't they owe me?"

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Eleven months after 81-year-old Gabe Rissmann reported tripping on a cracked South Higgins Avenue sidewalk and fracturing his tailbone, he's preparing to sue the city.

"Every time I think about it," Rissmann says, "I just get livid."

On a dark night last fall, the Hamilton resident says he was walking at a brisk pace to meet a friend downtown when he lost his footing on a cracked patch of city sidewalk. Because he landed on the pavement with a force sufficient to fracture his tailbone, Rissmann says it was a stroke of luck that his head hit a comparably soft patch of sod.

"Otherwise," Rissmann maintains, "I'd be dead."

Rissmann, who is now forced to use a walker, still doesn't understand why the city didn't fix the problem before it became a hazard. At a minimum, he says, it should have erected a warning sign.

Rissmann isn't the only local to claim that Missoula sidewalks caused them harm. In March, Patti Lefler alleged in a lawsuit against the city that she fractured her left knee in several places after an elevated portion of pavement in the Caras Park parking lot prompted her to lose her footing.

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According to Lefler's lawsuit, the uneven pavement "caused her to fly through the air over the remainder of the sidewalk and land in a puddle of muddy water directly on her left knee ..."

Like Rissmann, Lefler is demanding the city pay medical bills and compensate her for the subsequent mobility loss.

Attorneys representing Missoula in the Lefler case say the municipality is innocent of legal wrongdoing. "Plaintiff's condition was caused by her own carelessness or failure to exercise due care," the city argues in a July 3 legal filing.

While attorneys fight about liability, Missoula Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Bender acknowledges the city can be hard pressed to keep roughly 400 miles of city sidewalk completely crack-free. "It's a question of how much resources can you put at it," he says.

Bender notes that roughly five years ago the city rolled out a "joint-grinding program," which involved investing in machinery capable of smoothing pavement and dedicating additional staff hours to city walkways. Bender says since then the city's received no complaints of sidewalk-related accidents along downtown streets.

None of that reassures Rissmann, who's still angry about being forced to use a walker. "Christ," he says, "don't they owe me?"

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