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Barrister Bits - November 2012 - Wheelstops Nightmare


Barrister Bits - November 2012
Wheelstops Nightmare

by Debra A. Newby

According to our brilliant Editor, Vesta, which legal quandary has evoked more interest in the past year: 1)  the recall of Banana Boat Suncare due to a design defect?; or 2)  Whether a marketer’s text message “blitz” to your cell phone is an invasion of privacy?  Neither. Believe it or not, it is a concrete barrier originally designed to stop moving vehicles, hence the term “wheel stop”. But alas, like most man-made designs, an alternative use soon emerges … a tripping nightmare.   

In lieu of my regular Q & A legal column, the next two columns (maybe three, if space is tight) will address this controversial conundrum—wheel stops. Like any good juicy legal battle, it has at least two competing viewpoints. In one corner, we have the commercial property owners who have either installed or inherited the wheel stops in their parking area(s). These owners are reluctant to remove wheel stops as they fear a lawsuit if a moving vehicle does not stop and plows into their building, causing injury to their patrons.  They may also fear allegations of violating a design or building code section if the wheel stop is not properly installed (or removed). In the opposite corner, we have the unwary pedestrian who trips, falls, and is often seriously injured.  

Vesta has shared with me story after story. For example, the visiting Pennsylvania woman who tripped over a wheel stop in the parking lot of one of our local restaurants, breaking her knee in four places, requiring screws and wiring…Ouch!  Then there is one of our local hikers, who easily travails our rugged West County coastline, but rightly diverts her eyes to other things in a parking lot (like approaching vehicles or other pedestrians) and thus trips over the indestructible wheel stop, injuring her eye and arm. We even heard from a reader who served on a Sacramento County jury. The trial involved a man who tripped on a wheel stop while rushing to enter a store before it closed. The jury’s verdict was very balanced. They found negligence on both sides and no money was awarded to the injured man. However, the store owner did agree to remove all of the wheel stops.    

This first column will generally outline the law relating to building and design codes, such as whether wheel stops are required, etc. The law in this area is literally a patchwork of legal guidelines and codes, bringing clarity to the saying, “The Law is a Seamless Web”. Yet, in this case, it is not exactly seamless.  Below is a snapshot of this diversepatchwork:   

  • Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—Typically, the “Bible “on traffic control standards.  Wheel stops are notBarrister Bits - Wheelstop defined legally as a “traffic control device”, hence these standards are inapplicable.
  • Sonoma County  Permit and Resource Management Department Suggested Design Guidelines—Guideline 6 of this local handout states that in “urban areas, asphaltic concrete surfacing, with striped parking spaces, wheel stops, and cement curbing along the perimeter of landscaped areas is generally required”.
  • ASTM Standards—Acronym for American Society for Testing and Materials.  ASTM is a globally recognized leader in the development of voluntary standards in areas such as metals, construction and consumer products.  ASTM “Standard Practice for Safe Walking Surfaces, No 9” discourages the use of wheel stops in parking lots because of the trip hazard.
  • Municipal Codes:  A variety of California cities were researched, and as expected, the local city codes are “all over the map”, just like the cities. For example, Santa Rosa City Code Parking Design Standards (20-26.070) states that the use of individual wheel stop blocks is prohibited except in parking facilities not open to the public and in other locations when deemed necessary by the Director.  Some California cities, like Tulare and South Pasadena, in essence mandate wheel stops to protect buildings and walkways, and even prescribe the dimensions required. The City of Fresno’s Parking Manual goes as far as requiring “fixed physical barriers”, like a masonry wall or wheel stop, to be installed to protect public and private property adjacent to the parking facility as well as buildings and landscaping which could be damaged by vehicles using the parking facility.        

It is arguable that some of the building, design and municipal codes were created long ago, when we lived in a “simpler time” when people did not rush to and fro as much.  Perhaps not much forethought was given to the unintended hazard to the unwary pedestrian? But the dilemma is that these codes and guidelines are still on the books in some areas, and depending on when the building was first constructed, wheel stops may have even been part of the design plan that was approved by the regulatory authorities.

Next month’s column will continue, from the viewpoint of the injured pedestrian with practical suggestions offered. I will also address how insurance companies (and attorneys) may view liability. Stay tuned (and be careful out there)!


Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 30 years.  She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations.  She maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa and emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records).  Debra can be reached via email (, phone (707-526-7200), fax (526-7202) or pony express (930 Mendocino Avenue, Suite 101; Santa Rosa, 95401).   This legal column is a community service to generally discuss legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship. 



Have you ever see a wheel stop used in this manner?  The shopping center used these next to every handicapped parking space to prevent people in wheel chairs from crossing over the curb.  Yes, that was the reason they gave me.

Sherry Hehl

Wheelstops wheelchair barrier

wheelstops wheelchair barrier