Most drivers have been there: You're cruising along a road or highway when one of your car's tires finds a pothole. The experience can be jarring and loud, and it might leave you wondering whether your vehicle incurred any damage—and if it did, who might be legally responsible.
If your car is damaged because a road or highway is in bad shape, you can usually file a claim with the government (city, county, or state) that is in charge of maintaining that road. The claim process acts as a sort of prerequisite to filing a civil lawsuit against the government (or the government could decide to settle your claim without you filing a lawsuit), but the process is a strict one, and you still need to show that the government was at fault. Here's what you need to know.
(For a related discussion, learn what to do if a poor road condition causes a car accident.)
In order to be successful in a claim against a state government or local municipality for vehicle damage caused by bad road conditions, you need to show that the governmental entity did something wrong. Uusually that means showing that the government (or one of its employees) was negligent, or failed to properly fulfill the legal obligation to safely and reasonably maintain the road.
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 weeks, that seems like a pretty clear case of negligence against the government. But what if a sinkhole appeared in a street at 1:00 PM, and, at 1:15 PM, you came along and broke an axle in the sinkhole. Would the government be negligent?
In order to prove negligence, you must usually prove that the government knew or should reasonably have known of the problem with the road. And it's not reasonable to expect a town’s public works department to learn about and repair a sinkhole in 15 minutes. Under these facts, it is unlikely you could prove that the town was negligent. Learn more about proving negligence.
In a negligence-based case, the defendant typically tries to show that the injured person was also at fault. When you make a vehicle damage claim, the government might argue that you should have avoided the area, especially if the road had been in bad condition for some time, and there were signs warning of the condition of the road. Learn more about comparative fault for an accident.
Every state has a special set of rules that cover claims against the government at the state and municipal level, for compensation for some kind of loss. The claim-filing process varies from government-to-government, but there's usually a short (as little as 30 days) deadline to notify the proper government entity in writing of the date and exact location of your accident, and how much you're asking for in terms of compensation. The government might have its own claim form for you to complete, or they may just have a list of required information. Start by doing an online search using a phrase like "claim against [name of state/city/county] government."
If you're not sure whether it is the state, county, or town that is legally responsible for the maintenance of the road where your vehicle was damaged, you usually can’t go wrong with sending a claim to as many governmental entities as possible. It may also make sense to contact a lawyer who can help with a claim against the government.
If you file an administrative claim with the government for vehicle damage because of bad road conditions, depending on your state's laws, there might be a cap on the dollar amount you can recover via the claim process. But this issue is a little more nuanced than that. If you're asking for more than a certain amount, the government might ask you to specify whether you intend to file any future lawsuit in small claims or regular civil court. Your answers could affect the government's decision whether to settle your claim.
The amount you're seeking in damages will also dictate your future options. If your claim is denied or no action is taken by the government, and you're allowed to file a lawsuit, you'll have to choose whether you're going to file in small claims court (where you can only ask for up to a certain amount) or in regular court, where there are typically no caps on what a plaintiff can seek. Since these kinds of cases are limited to property damage, which is usually easy to quantify, you should be able to plan ahead and navigate a path that leads to full compensation for your losses.