Who is Liable When Poor Road Conditions Cause a Car Accident?

If poor road conditions contributed to a car accident, the government or agency managing the road may be liable for damages.

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Poor road conditions such as missing guardrails, erosion, pot holes and faulty design can be the cause of serious car damage or even injuries for the unwary driver. But, whether a person can sue for the resulting damage or injuries is a complicated question.

A plaintiff who is a victim of a car accident due to poor road conditions must prove that the road conditions actually caused the damage to the car and/or the injuries. The plaintiff must also show that the agency or company responsible for maintaining the road was negligent in its duty to provide a safe roadway -- or that they failed to adequately warn drivers of a potential hazard. Finally, the plaintiff must determine if the agency responsible is allowed to be sued in court and whether too much time has passed since the accident. These elements are discussed in more detail below.

Who is Responsible for Maintenance?

Roads are maintained by cities, counties and states. Different maintenance responsibilities for a certain roadway can also be shared by more than one governmental agency. For example, a state might be responsible for filling pot holes and paving the roads while a city might be responsible for snowplowing and de-icing the roadways. Figuring out which agency was responsible is important not only for suing the proper party, but for determining if the particular agency can be sued at all (more on this below).

Proving Negligence in Road Maintenance

Once it is determined who is responsible for the road, the plaintiff must prove that the agency was negligent in its failure to maintain the road. This means that the agency could have, and should have, repaired the road but chose not to do so, or that the agency built the road in a dangerously faulty manner.

For example, a state might decide to cut back on funding for road repair, which in turn causes erosion near a lake. If a car goes off the road because the road is washing away, the state may be liable for the resulting car damage. On the other hand, if a large tree fell into a road, but there was no way in which the agency responsible could have discovered the tree and removed it before the damage occurred, then the agency will not be found liable.

Determining the Cause of the Car Damage or Injury

The plaintiff must also prove that the poor road conditions actually caused the car damage or injury, and this can be difficult, especially if when it comes to vehicle damage.

Car damage caused by a pothole or by debris in the road might not be noticed immediately after it happens and it may be difficult to retrace a car’s route to show what specifically in the road caused the damage. Without other witnesses or other evidence, such as a police report or photos of the accident, the plaintiff’s testimony will be the only proof of how the damage was caused. If that is so, the agency may be able to argue that the plaintiff’s poor driving or other condition, such as the weather, was the real reason the damage occurred.

Can the Agency Be Sued?

Most government agencies, including states and the federal government, have immunity from lawsuits, which means that they cannot be sued (this is called “sovereign immunity” when it is applied to the federal and state governments, and “governmental immunity” when it is applied to city, county and other smaller governments).

Although they are immune, most government agencies make exceptions to immunity and allow themselves to be sued under specific conditions. Typically, negligence in maintaining a roadway will create an exception to immunity and allow a plaintiff to sue. However, there may be narrow constraints, for example the negligence must have been “gross” (i.e. very negligent) or a municipality must have purchased insurance to cover the type of lawsuit.

The exact circumstances under which a plaintiff can sue for car damage or injury due to road conditions can vary greatly from state to state. The state government usually sets the rules for when smaller agencies -- such as municipalities within the state -- can be sued, so the rules typically do not vary within a state.

Another rule that prevents many lawsuits even if the government agency is allowed to be sued is the “statute of limitations.” Virtually all legal actions have a time limit within in which the plaintiff must sue, called the “statute of limitations.” If the plaintiff fails to start the lawsuit before the deadline set by the statute of limitations, a court will not allow the plaintiff to sue.

Most states have a very short statute of limitations for injury claims based on faulty road conditions, typically from six months to two years. Most states also require the plaintiff to notify the responsible agency of the intention to sue before the case can begin. Depending on the state, this means that a plaintiff must identify and notify the responsible agency of why he or she is going to sue within, for example, six months of the accident. Any later, and no lawsuit will be allowed.

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