Your Legal Options When Poor Road Conditions Damage Your Car

What can you do if your car is damaged by a pothole, cracked surface, or other road defect?

If your car is damaged because of poor road conditions, you can generally file a claim and lawsuit against the governmental entity (city, county, or state) that is in charge of maintaining that road, but there are significant limitations to these types of claims. Here's what you need to know.

If the road conditions contributed to a car accident, that's a different story.

The Government Must Be Negligent

In order to win a lawsuit against a state government or local municipality for bad road conditions, you must be able to prove that the governmental entity was negligent (i.e., that it did something wrong).

Simply because the road damaged your car does not mean that the government was negligent. The government has to have acted unreasonably in its maintenance and upkeep of the road in order for it to be found negligent. You must also prove that the government knew or reasonably should have known that the road was in bad shape.

What Type of Road Conditions Constitute Negligence?

Obviously, if there is a pothole or sinkhole in the road, or if the road is cracked or broken, the road is in bad shape. But many other conditions can also give rise to liability for bad road conditions, such as poor or confusing street signage, narrow roads, construction debris in the road, and lack of sufficient shoulder on the road, just to name a few.

If, for example, a big pothole has been in the middle of a street for six months and has damaged dozens of cars, and the local newspaper has been writing articles about it for months, that seems like a pretty open and shut case of negligence against the government. But let’s take a different example. What if a big sinkhole appeared in a street at 1:00 PM one day, and, at 1:15 PM, you came along and broke an axle in the sinkhole. Shouldn’t the government be negligent?

Unfortunately, remember that, in order to prove negligence, you must prove that the government knew or should reasonably have known of the problem with the road. Even in the age of Twitter, it is not reasonable for a town’s public works department to learn about a sinkhole in 15 minutes. Nor is it reasonable to expect that the town could fix the sinkhole, or indeed do anything about it that quickly. In this example, it is unlikely that you could prove that the town was negligent in its maintenance and upkeep of the road unless you could prove that the town knew or should have known that that section of road was particularly susceptible to sinkholes and that the town should have used special road construction methods to avoid sinkholes.

Comparative Negligence: Could You Have Avoided the Problem?

In a negligence lawsuit, the defendant always tries to show that the plaintiff was also at fault. If the plaintiff in a lawsuit was negligent, the plaintiff’s damages in most states will be reduced depending on the percentage of his/her negligence.

If, for example, the jury finds that the plaintiff was 10% at fault for the accident, the plaintiff’s damages will generally be reduced by 10% under comparative negligence rules in place in most states. In a poor road condition lawsuit, the town might argue that you could have and should have avoided the area, especially if the road had been in bad condition for some time.

Special Rules for Claims Against a Governmental Entity

Every state has a special set of laws that cover injury claims the government at the state and municipal level. These deadlines differ from state to state, but can include the following:

  • a very short (as little as 30 days) deadline to notify the proper governmental entity in writing of the date and exact location of your accident and the precise circumstances of your accident
  • a shortened deadline for filing a lawsuit (the statute of limitations) against the governmental entity.

These requirements are applied more strictly in some states than in others. In some states, your claim will be barred if you send your notice to the wrong municipal department, even though it might just be down the hall from the correct department.

Also, you have to make sure that you make your claim against the proper governmental entity in the first place. Sending your notice to the wrong governmental entity doesn’t count. In a bad road condition case, you will have to figure out whether it is the state, county, or town that is legally responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the road that damaged your car. If you can’t figure it out, you usually can’t go wrong with sending notice to as many governmental entities as possible.

What are the Limits on Damages in a Bad Road Condition Case?

If you file a claim for property damage (damage to your vehicle) because of bad road conditions, the government might have a cap in place when it comes to how much money you can receive. These limits will differ from state to state, but can be surprisingly low, sometimes as little as $5,000.

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